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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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 Other poems, now known as "Unpublished" or "Hidden," he did preserve, still others he repudiated, and some he did not finish.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: