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To the Poems!

According to one of Constantine Cavafy’s friends—a claim twice cited in this noticeably slim volume—Cavafy “abjured three activities: giving lectures, granting interviews, and writing prose.” Though he does indeed seem to have kept scrupulously clear of the first two, his archived papers, plus pieces rescued from various newspapers and periodicals, show that he intermittently—and, it must be said, unwisely—broke his own third rule.

The statistics are interesting. Michael Pieris’s Greek edition of Cavafy’s collected prose, which appeared in 2003, lists sixty-four items, of which no more than twenty-eight were published during the author’s lifetime. The present translated selection includes forty, twelve of them similarly published while Cavafy lived. This record of publication is a trifle scanty, one might think, to justify the claim of Peter Jeffreys that Cavafy “began his professional career as a journalist and translator”; and a perusal of this (rather portentously titled) “other written corpus” makes it even harder to accept the further assertion that “his prose writings showcase his talents in this area and attest to his considerable critical abilities as a book reviewer and cultural critic.”

To look, first, at the minority that were originally printed, it is pretty safe to say that had Cavafy not been their author, not one of the dozen fugitive pieces would ever have been dug up again; nor would they have elicited puffs from serious academic Hellenists such as the assertion that in the future readers and scholars “will find it difficult to discuss Cavafy’s poetry without reference to his prose.” They will have no trouble doing so, not least since a good many of the prose pieces have little if any bearing on poetry. 

Three of them—two on the old debate about Greece’s claim to the Elgin Marbles, one on the equally vexed Cyprus question, advocating enosis, or union, with Greece—are political, and showcase not Cavafy’s literary skills (they read more like letters to the editor) but his early knee-jerk nationalism. One, about mythical references to coral, reminds us that at the time of its writing, in 1886, folklore was all the rage in Greek culture, and that Cavafy’s early essays (Jeffreys again) “are utterly awash in folkloric content.”

One piece, on the face of it linguistic but in fact also political—the battle between artificially “purist” Greek and the spoken vernacular already marked a major division between conservatives and radicals—pays artful tribute to the Scottish philologist J. S. Blackie and others for taking modern demotic Greek seriously. Another publicizes theories on the Trojan War advanced by the eminent Egyptologist Gaston Maspero; another is simply an advertisement for the new Alexandrian museum. The more literary pieces include a couple of notes on Shakespeare’s thought; a sketch of Byzantine poets; a comparison of Keats’s Lamia with its main source, a tale reported by Philostratus in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana; and a synopsis of Lucian’s satiric essay “On Salaried Posts in Great Houses”.

Reading this collection put me in mind, too often for comfort, of the generations of undergraduate essays I had to read during my career as a university teacher. I found the same tendency to make long unexamined quotations do the work of analysis; the same displays of factitious scholarship borrowed from the work under review; the same readiness (most notably on those Byzantine poets) to take refuge in synopsis, or even in mere catalogues of names; the same occasional descent into emotional, not to say platitudinous, generalization (“in this poetry we will find the genius of our race, and all its tenderness, along with the most precious beating of Hellenism’s very heart”). The mature Cavafy would have been seriously embarrassed had he lived to see these youthful efforts resurrected by his admirers. He reportedly dismissed them as his “baggage in prose,” and the amount of rather better work that he took care not to publish—some of it included in the present volume—confirms his verdict.

Jeffreys excuses the poor quality of the published work on the grounds, firstly, that Cavafy was struggling to accommodate himself to “purist” diction, and, secondly, that he had to cater to readers who “expected a peculiar style of learned journalism that consisted of a formulaic blend of encyclopedic dilettantism interspersed with choice translations of foreign authors and foreign journalists.” Jeffreys’s explanation would carry more weight did both phenomena not appear with almost equal frequency in the unpublished works (see the struggling essay on Browning). Were some of these pieces, one wonders, especially the folkloric ones, editors’ rejects? Some, interestingly, were originally written in English. Here, despite George Seferis’s claim that till the age of nine Cavafy spoke only English, his grasp of idiom is often shaky: we read, for instance, of werewolves that “struck off the heads of little children with their teeth.”

When we turn to the more literary unpublished work, we are back in the scented late nineteenth-century world of Symbolism and the Decadents. An essay on the Sophists sees them as fin de siècle aesthetes like Baudelaire or Wilde. Readers of Cavafy’s poetry will be uneasily reminded that until the end of his life he remained in thrall to Art for Art’s Sake. Yet by 1898 he had already written two of his greatest poems, “The City” and “Waiting for the Barbarians,” while the “Philosophical Scrutiny” he made of his own prior work—written in 1903 (in English), reprinted here, and often credited in part for his emergence as a major creative artist—consists of little more than rambling obiter dicta about his literary preferences (largely borrowed, as Jeffreys points out, from Poe’s essay “The Poetic Principle”). In other words, there is an intriguing qualitative disjunction between Cavafy’s poetry and his prose, and this volume, far from resolving it, only intensifies the mystery.

One might have expected the three alleged ‘prose poems’—portentous inflation again—and the one piece of fiction presented here to have shown some hints of the genius evident in Cavafy’s verse, but not a bit of it. The prose poems each take an image or metaphor—garments symbolizing experience of life, ships conveying imagination as their cargo, the Pleasure Brigade rooty-tooting along “with music and banners” to vanquish puritanism—and laboriously run it into the ground. As for the short story, it depends on the bizarre assumption that any Greek, if repeatedly promised guidance by a ghost to the site of a huge treasure-trove, would be too scared to take up the offer.

The most hopeful item is the “Twenty-Seven Notes on Poetic and Ethics”. These do indeed, as that great Cavafy scholar George Savidis noted, and Jeffreys repeats, contain, in “embryonic form, all the aesthetic, ethical, social and artistic motifs” with which Cavafy was concerned, including his erotic instincts and the social prejudices against them. But the proviso of “embryonic form” is worked pretty hard, and we have to cope with pronouncements such as, “My work proceeds along the lines of thinking. Perhaps this is right.” Perhaps.

Were there no more substantial, or at least more interesting, prose works in the Cavafy archive than these? We hear of diaries, but we get no extracts from them. Jeffreys tells us that he omitted Cavafy’s reflections on the Alexandrian stock exchange, and we know from other sources that the poet also recorded his struggles against masturbation. Neither of these topics is likely to be of less interest than some of the selected prose included here. Jeffreys’s final item is Cavafy’s anonymous self-assessment written for, but never published by, a French periodical in 1930. Its summing-up ran: “Cavafy, in my opinion, is an ultra-modern poet, a poet of the future generations.” Whatever we may think of his other literary judgments, about his own poetic worth the old Alexandrian was spot-on.

David Levine’s cartoon of Cavafy on the cover of this volume bears an eerie resemblance to Woody Allen in expostulative mood. Glum and censorious of expression, the portrait stares unswervingly at the would-be reader, as though disclaiming all responsibility for the public resurrection of the book’s contents. One can also imagine some of the irritation visible as being directed, not unreasonably, at the editor. Jeffreys’s notes are sketchy in the extreme. His transcription of Greek names confuses Hellenic with Latin, so that Quintus Smyrnaeus appears as Kointus of Smyrna. He seems to think that the “Ainé” attached to the French actor Coquelin is part of his name rather than ‘the Elder’. Ludicrously, he includes the emperor Hadrian in a list of Greek sophists, presumably never having heard of Herodes Atticus’s student Adrianus of Tyre. And he can compound Cavafy’s own errors: a brief one-line citation from Juvenal (whom Cavafy clearly never read) was expanded, by the time it got to him, via Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy and others, to a four-line excursus which he then printed (as does Jeffreys, without editorial comment) on the assumption that it was Juvenal’s own. Time was when publication by a distinguished university press guaranteed scrupulous copy-editing of substance as well as of orthography. No longer. Caveat emptor.        

Peter Green, an emeritus professor of classics, has translated works by Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos, and Ersi Sotiropoulos.