The Magazine

Greek Bearing Gift

Constantine Cavafy, the tortured bard of Alexandria.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By JOHN SIMON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.