The Magazine

Greek Bearing Gift

Constantine Cavafy, the tortured bard of Alexandria.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By JOHN SIMON
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The Canon

The Original One Hundred and Fifty-Four Poems

by Constantine Cavafy

Translated by Stratis Haviaras

Center for Hellenic Studies, 465 pp., $24.95

Is there a poet more translated into English than the Alexandrian Greek Constantine Cavafy? Rainer Maria Rilke comes closest, and behind him Pablo Neruda. This despite modern Greek being a language much less known abroad than German or Spanish. Even his name had to be adapted by himself for us foreigners into C.P. Cavafy from the Greek Konstantinos Petrou Kabaphes, which would fall like lead on Greekless ears.

Yet Cavafy exists in eight more or less complete English versions, the six in my possession still in print, the most recent, Stratis Haviaras's The Canon my subject here. Cavafy's influence on Anglophone literati has been impressive, as several have acknowledged in writing. Consider the roster: E.M. Forster, W.H. Auden, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, James Merrill, Paul Muldoon, Christopher Middleton, Peter Porter, Roy Fuller, Rachel Hadas, and Duane Michaels. I would like to add France's Marguerite Yourcenar, painting's David Hockney, and South Africa's J.M. Coetzee, whose novel Waiting for the Barbarians takes its title from Cavafy's best known poem. In Greece, every major poet is in Cavafy's debt, notably the Nobel laureate George Seferis and the remarkable Iannis Ritsos.

What makes Cavafy internationally famous? (Note also that Bartlett's Familiar Quotations contains a goodly number of quotations from him.) To begin with, whatever the subject of his poems, their tone, the sensibility behind them, is a thoroughly cosmopolitan one, as Cavafy's life bears out.

Born into a prosperous Greek Orthodox merchant family in Alexandria in 1863, he was the youngest of nine children. In 1872, upon his father's death, the family, in straitened circumstances, moved to Liverpool, where the import-export firm had an office; after three years, another move took them to London for a further four. The company went bust, but not before Constantine developed considerable skill in English, adopted English manners and, apparently, even a lifelong slight British accent in his Greek.

For the next five years mother Charikleia and several of her brood lived in Alexandria, where Constantine attended a school of commerce. Political unrest and British bombardment drove Charikleia and a few sons to Constantinople and the home of her rich, civilized diamond-merchant father.

In England Cavafy read Shakespeare, Wilde, and Browning, whose dramatic monologues he later emulated. In Constantinople (1882-85) he got deeply involved with Hellenistic and Byzantine history as well as the Greek classics. Good at languages, he read Dante in Italian and perused much contemporary English and French poetry, notably the Parnassians and Symbolists.

Back in Alexandria from 1885, he continued to write poetry in Greek and prose in English. He switched citizenship from British to Greek, and kicked around in various professions--journalist, broker, Cotton Stock Exchange employee, and, finally, apprentice in the Irrigation Office of the Ministry of Public Works, where he was to become a clerk for 30 years until his retirement.

With various brothers (most of whom died young), Constantine did some traveling, sometimes to Athens, but also to London and Paris. On top of Latin and classical Greek, he was fluent in English, French, Italian, and Arabic, and so useful to the Irrigation Office as to earn afternoons off for the stock exchange and homosexual pursuits. He did well at both, and his salary grew as well, though he remained, as a Greek citizen, in title only "provisional clerk."

In a diary, Cavafy described desperate but futile attempts to rid himself of his erotic passions. By 1903, on the basis of magazine publication, his poems were becoming noticed and written about in Greece. Having previously lived with his cherished mother, upon her death he moved in with his brother Paul. When Paul moved to Paris in 1908, Cavafy became sole owner of the modest flat. During World War I he met E.M. Forster, who made him known to English writers and readers.

By 1924 there were intense discussions about Cavafy's work in Athens and Alexandria, T.S. Eliot published him in the Criterion, Dimitri Mitropoulos was setting him to music, and he became friends with Nikos Kazantzakis. Come 1928, much was published about him everywhere; the Italian Futurist Marinetti called on him and, later, wrote about him. The next year Forster returned to Alexandria, and sang his praises in interviews.

In 1932 Cavafy developed throat cancer. A tracheotomy in Athens yielded a brief reprieve, but lost him the capacity of speech. Bedridden for months back in Alexandria, he was writing poems to the last. Refusing last rites at first, he finally accepted them "with compunction." His last gesture was to draw a symbolic circle with a dot inside as, having reached the biblical three score and ten, he died from a stroke on his seventieth birthday, April 29, 1933.

Cavafy usually wrote about 70 poems a year and destroyed all but four or five. His total output was about 300, printed on broadsheets for his friends' approval, or published in slim chapbooks--never in book form. Near death, he approved 154 for book publication; printed posthumously in 1935, they are known as "the Canon." Other poems, now known as "Unpublished" or "Hidden," he did preserve, still others he repudiated, and some he did not finish. All have been published, which has been variously saluted and deplored. There are English translations of most of these, one even of all.

Modern Greek is twofold: the formal katharevussa or purist, long used in journalism, literature, and politics; and the popular speech, demotike, which eventually prevailed in literature as well. Cavafy created his own blend of the two, sometimes quite unusual and even ungrammatical, but exerting a peculiar charm. As for his subjects, they were designated by himself as historical, philosophical, or sensual (hedonistic)--these last-named always homosexual. There was quite a bit of overlapping: Greek spelling, itself divergent, has been rendered in English in Hellenic or Latinately Anglicized forms--e.g., Phoibos or Phoebus--causing confusing inconsistency.

Cavafy famously remarked, "I am a poet-historian. I could never write a novel or a play, but I feel in me a hundred and twenty-five voices that tell me I could write history. But now there is no more time."

The historical poems, which preponderate, are of two kinds: about actual historical figures, although often minor ones, or fictional characters that nevertheless compellingly evoke past ages and events. The philosophical poems feature cogent speculations of existential, occasionally religious or mythological, nature. The sensual ones deal with fulfilled or unfulfilled physical relationships, often mere pickups, very rarely love, and then almost always one-sided.

The chief historic periods are the Hellenistic (4th century to 1st century B.C.); the Roman (1st century B.C. to 4th century A.D.); and the late Byzantine (11th to 14th centuries A.D.). The locales are the Syria of the Seleucids, with their capital in Antioch, and the Egypt of the Ptolemies, with their capital in Alexandria; but also lesser kingdoms of Asia Minor, as well as mainland Greece and Macedon, all eventually conquered by Rome, except for Byzantium, which fell to the Turks.

The sensual poems are almost always memory poems, such as "Their Beginnings," as translated by Haviaras:

Their illicit wanton lust has been satisfied.

Rising from the bed, they dress quickly, not speaking.

They leave the house furtively: first one, then the other;

as they stroll a bit uneasily down the street, it's as though

they imagine that some aspect of them betrays

the sort of bed they lay upon just minutes ago.

And yet how the artist has profited from all this:

tomorrow, or the day after, or years from now, he'll write

the crucial verses that had their beginnings here.

Some Cavafian characteristics are apparent. There is no reliance on metaphor, simile, or other tropes. The meter, even in English, is chiefly iambic and the lines (at least in the Greek) are usually of 12 to 17 syllables. Outspokenness is evident. Though not here, Cavafy sometimes rhymes, which Haviaras (unlike most translators) often renders in rhyme. What cannot be rendered is Cavafy's idiosyncratic, purist/demotic language and the verbal music at which he excelled.

In the same vein, consider "On the Ship."

It resembles him, of course,

this modest penciled drawing.

Quickly sketched on the deck of the ship,

on an enchanted afternoon,

the Ionian sea all about us.

It resembles him, but I remember him as more attractive.

He was voluptuous to an almost painful degree,

and this animated his expression.

Now that my soul conjures him out of time

he certainly appears to be more attractive.

Out of time. All these things are really quite old--

the drawing, and the ship, and the afternoon.

How that last line resonates, even in English!

About another relationship, Cavafy writes with medial breaks as in some old Greek hymns:

Perhaps it was fate 

become an artist, that required them to part before

time had changed them, before their feelings failed;

so that now one for the other will always remain

as though

he were still a handsome young man of twenty-four.

In very cosmopolitan Alexandria (Egyptian, British, Greek, French), homosexuality was rampant. As most likely the first candidly homosexual modern poet, Cavafy gained a sizable constituency, but historicism also has attracted numerous readers fascinated by the past. A famous poem, "The God Abandons Antony," has Mark Antony, after his defeat at Actium, gazing out of a window and imagining Dionysus and his revelers leaving the Roman's adopted city. Here is how it ends:

listen closely with your heart, not

with cowardly pleas and protests;

hear, as a last pleasure, those sounds,

the delightful music of the invisible procession,

and bid farewell to the Alexandria you are losing.

Or consider "Nero's Tenure," which begins: "Nero wasn't particularly troubled to / learn of the Delphic oracle's pronouncement: / 'Watch out for the age of seventy-three.' / There's more than enough time to enjoy himself." The poem then evokes some of the young emperor's pleasures and hopes, and ends: "So it goes for Nero. While in Spain, the general Galba / clandestinely marshals and trains his troops, / a very old man of seventy-three." This is a good example of Cavafy's celebrated irony, informing so much of the poetry.

Cavafy learned a lot from historians such as Plutarch, and old Alexandrian epigrammatist poets such as Callimachus and Meleager. But he was always idiosyncratic, albeit often under an alias. So in "Orophernes," a poem about a Cappadocian king, we read: "In his heart he was ever an Asiatic, / but in his conduct and discourse a Greek," which stands for Cavafy's private hedonism and public discretion. A similar duality pervades "Myres; Alexandria, 340 A.D.," which dramatically contrasts Alexandria's simultaneous paganism and Christianity.

Perhaps even more effective are the philosophical poems, such as "Ithaka." Here Cavafy uses Odysseus' long homeward journey as a symbol for Everyman's progress through life. He warns: "take care not to travel too hastily" even if Ithaka "is the goal of your journey," supposed to be "always in your thoughts." But you are not to expect riches when reaching the home shores of old age:

Ithaka bestowed upon you the marvelous journey:

if not for her you would never have set out.

But she has nothing left to impart to you.

If you find Ithaka wanting, it's not that she's deceived you.

That you have gained so much wisdom and experience

will have told you everything of what such Ithakas mean.

As D.J. Enright correctly observed in Conspirators and Poets, Cavafy "is a major poet. .  .  . He deserves more than one translation." The various translations all have their merits. Take that closing line of "Ithaka." In Rae Dalven, it is "you must surely have understood by then what Itahacas mean." In Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard: "you will have understood by then what Ithacas mean." In Aliki Barnstone: "you understand by now what Ithakas mean." Theoharis C. Theoharides intro-duces commas with ironic implication: "you will have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean." Evangelos Sachperoglou is chattier: "you will have come to know what Ithacas really mean."

Indeed, every English edition of Cavafy's poems has its particular virtue. John Mavrogordato had an excellent introduction by Rex Warner. Dalven has a much-quoted introduction by Auden, as well as her exemplary biography of the poet. Barnstone features a good foreword by Gerald Stern, and though all versions have explanatory notes, hers are particularly helpful, as in her discussion of transliteration. Theoharides is the only one who includes every available scrap of Cavafy. Sachperoglou has the most extensive and informative historical-critical introduction (by Peter Mackridge) and handy chronologies of both the poems and Cavafy's life, which I have much relied on.

Stratis Haviaras has some, though not all, of the rhyming as well as the Greek text on facing pages; some other translations have had one or the other, but not both. Although Seamus Heaney's Foreword here is too skimpy, Manuel Savidis's Introduction is helpful, though it contains one curious slip, making 1963 50 rather than (correctly) 30 years after the poet's death. The "Translator's Preface" usefully explains Haviaras's methodology.

How do I rate this newest translation? Let us look at Haviaras's version of Cavafy's most famous poem, "Waiting for the Barbarians." It is in dialogue form, and begins in his rendering (I omit the blank spaces between line clusters):

What are we waiting for, gathered here in the agora?

The barbarians are supposed to show up today.

Why is there such indolence in the senate?

Why are the senators sitting around, making no laws?

Because the barbarians are to show up today.

Why should the senators trouble

themselves with laws?

When the barbarians arrive, they'll do the legislating.

Thereupon the poem brilliantly evokes various attitudes: the emperor, ceremonially attired, holding a scroll of tribute; the consuls and praetors in their most opulent finery; the great orators curiously absent. The expectant crowd is "suddenly ill at ease":

Why are the streets and the squares all at once empty,

as everyone heads for home, lost in their thoughts?

Because it's night now and the -barbarians haven't shown up.

And there are others, just back from the borderlands,

who claim that the barbarians no longer exist.

What in the world will we do without barbarians?

Those people would have been a solution, of sorts.

This strikes me as solid, although it must be conceded that Havarias's English is occasionally faulty. So we get a person's "behaviors" in the plural, "work as best as you can," "he could care less," "this one gone waste," "he lay the flowers," and a few others.

But on the positive side there is also the handsome, generous-sized, typeface, and Haviaras captures what Heaney rightly calls the "indefinable, locked-up quality of Cavafy's gaze." Which means, as Heaney further notes, Cavafy's going toward what the gaze focuses on "calmly and clearsightedly, more coroner than commentator, equally disinclined to offer blame or grant the benefit of the doubt." Sir Maurice Bowra, in the creative experiment put it this way: "He pierced through the local and ephemeral qualities of a situation to its permanent character and created not a record of history but an imaginative criticism of life."

As I see it, Cavafy has managed the neat trick of transmuting terse, unadorned lines into, as he says in a poem, "utter feeling."

John Simon writes about theater for Bloomberg News.