The Magazine

Cavafy at Random

The remains (in prose) of the great Greek poet.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By JOHN SIMON
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Selected Prose Works

Cavafy at Random

Archivio GBB Contrasto / Redux

by Constantine Cavafy

translated and annotated by Peter Jeffreys

Michigan, 184 pp., $24.95

Constantine Cavafy is a major figure in modern poetry, repeatedly translated into English. His prose, however, remained uncollected and unpublished in English​—​until now.

Of course, a good many fine poets have proved no slouches when it came to prose: Baudelaire and Poe, both influences on Cavafy, are prime examples. Yet perhaps the most interesting thing about these 40 short pieces (chosen from 64) is that many of them were written in the decent English Cavafy picked up during several years in England. They stem chiefly from his early to early middle years, and only 13 had been published before. They comprise essays, prose poems, what Peter Jeffreys judiciously terms “attempts at short story writing,” articles on the Greek language, and aesthetic reflections. They extend from Greek folk songs to Shakespeare, from Philostratus to Browning and Tennyson, and touch upon Keats and Wilde, Lucian of Samosata and
Leigh Hunt.

Cavafy goes in for lengthy quotations, sometimes dwarfing his own contributions, either out of scrupulous modesty or to spare himself some effort. Curiously, writing on a poem such as  “The Glove,” he merely paraphrases Schiller’s original, quotes the English of Hunt in full, and concentrates on the extended Browning version. The problem that affected so much of Greek literature concerned Cavafy in Alexandria relatively little: Was one to write in katharevousa, the stiffly purist, or dimotiki, the spoken Greek? The latter won out, but Cavafy himself, though slowly gravitating toward the demotic, eventually coined his own hybrid language. Of course, this does not come across in translation.

Jeffreys has divided the material into four categories: Essays, Fiction and Creative Writing, Literary Reflections, and Miscellaneous. There are political subjects, such as two pieces arguing for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece, and one on the unhappily divided island of Cyprus. There are historical items, such as “Greek Scholars in Roman Houses” and “A Page of Trojan History,” as well as curiosities, such as “Fragment on Lycanthropy” and “Coral from a Mythological Perspective.” Linguistics figure in “Professor Blackie on the Modern Greek Language” and “A Note on Obsolete Words.” More or less disguised autobiography appears in “Musings of an Aging Artist” (written when Cavafy was somewhere in his thirties) and “On the Poet C. P. Cavafy,” which Jeffries describes as “a French auto-encomium that was written by Cavafy but meant to be anonymous.”

Further pieces are about the folklore of enchanted animals and about misplaced tenderness to animals. There is an essay in favor of a student anthology of demotic songs, and one in praise of Saint Simeon the Stylite. There are several on literature, ranging from the Byzantine poets (one more obscure than the next) to the anonymous Chronicle of Morea. “Persian Manners” ends this way: “Cyrus the Elder boasted, at the court of his grandfather Astyages, that his father never drank more wine than was needful to allay his thirst; and Herodotus tells us that they never adopt a resolution decided upon when drinking unless it be first approved in their hours of soberness.” One of the longer items, on the last days of Odysseus, examines the ultimate destiny of that hero as variously imagined by Homer, Dante, and Tennyson. This, characteristically, offers almost more quotations from those poets than original observations by Cavafy.

Yet little gems pop up throughout. About the British editor James Knowles, who argues against the restitution of the Elgin Marbles, he offers this: “He appears to be thoroughly convinced, which is not unimportant​—​it being thus certain that his doctrine has at least one follower.” Or this, more doubtful one, about Keats: “He writes in heroic couplets, though his rhyme is not always rich since in the English language a satisfying end-rhyme is a glory seldom achieved by the poets.” He writes that the waves of the Bosphorus “are unlike those of other bodies of water which resemble the expression of a malevolent or aging face. When the Bosphorus loses its smoothness and becomes rippled, it is simply because it rejoices and is laughing.” And there is this observation:

The Enthusiasm and Creativity of every author begin to appear strange or ridiculous once they age forty or fifty years. Perhaps​—​and this is one hope​—​they will cease being strange or ridiculous once they age one-hundred-and-fifty or two-hundred years​—​when, instead of being démodés, they become ancient.

I cherish a passage against the popular notion of having to write from experience: “Perhaps Shakespeare had never been jealous in his life, so he ought not to have written Othello; perhaps he was never seriously melancholy, so he ought not to have written Hamlet; he never murdered, so he ought not to have written Macbeth!!!” Or this, in defense of archaism: “It is not a corpse disinterred (as with less skillful writers) but a beautiful body awaked from a long & refreshing sleep.”

Let us consider one of the better entries in detail. The piece is “A Few Pages on the Sophists” and begins, “I have great sympathy for the much despised Sophists of the ancient world.” Cavafy had read George Grote’s History of Greece, which defended the first generation of Sophists, the ones Socrates and Plato had it in for. Now he undertakes to defend a later Sophist generation, the one recorded in Philostratus’ The Lives of the Sophists. Young, impecunious Cavafy looked back at these somewhat dubious aesthetes as favorite fantasy figures: “They greatly resembled today’s artists in their love for the external beauty of the works of art.” Even if they spoke of small things, the outward rhetorical expression had to be perfect. The idealization, both Philostratus’ and Cavafy’s, is evident: “Even those Romans who did not know Greek, listened with fascination to tones of voice, expressive glances, rhythms of speech. One Sophist says of another, ‘he introduced into his speech rhythms more varied than those of the flute or lyre.’ ”

They were even drama critics, interrupting an actor onstage if he did something wrong: “They would speak on all subjects, historical, social, philological and philosophical. The great variety of their topics allowed their art to encompass components of today’s novels, poetry, criticism, and drama. They concerned themselves with the study of painting and sculpture.” On and on goes Cavafy’s rapture, some of it based on Philostratus, some of it generated by himself. He cites sundry examples of the luxuries in clothing, carriages, domestic animals, and various “earthly goods” the Sophists indulged themselves in:

They were the votaries of the Beautiful in the realm of ideas​—​but they appreciated the good things of everyday life. .  .  . Some of their homes even had theatres with excellent scenery built within. .  .  . Proclus had four homes. .  .  . But let no one think that in the acquisition of wealth they were petty and avaricious. Artists have their faults, but the two aforementioned were not among theirs.

“Perhaps in their judgments [the Sophists] were mistaken,” we read, “but their sincerity is beyond a doubt when they referred to one another as ‘kings of the spoken word’ and ‘the Greek language.’ Some readers detect irony here; I don’t.” Cavafy retells the anecdote of the Sophist Alexander of Seleucia who, arriving in Athens for “a rhetorical performance,” found most young potential auditors staying with Herodes at Marathon. So he writes Herodes asking for an audience of Greeks, and the great man, “with much wit, announced that, along with the Greeks, he would be coming as well.”

Notice that questionable “wit.” These prose pieces later inspired Cavafy’s poetry, and in the poem “Herodes Atticus” (where the anecdote is retold) the statement is described as “tactful.” Could that be ironic? Irony surfaces here when Cavafy mentions the loss of numerous works by Sophists: “But this is no reason to suppose with certainty that they were without merit or inferior to those that survived. It is not in good taste to condemn those who are deceased.” Their fateful lapse into oblivion he explains in this way: “Since they were so vocal, since they spoke so much, since they lived the high life.”

He concludes that the Sophists deserve better, that besides everything else, “their worshiping of Art (which should endear them greatly to those of us who presently occupy ourselves with the Word), this bad luck of theirs, this silence which Fate has imposed on them​—​how unbearable it is to be in such shadows​—​obliges us to become indulgent and sympathetic.” The reader will note from this that Cavafy was quite a rhetorician himself, and that this pro domo defense of the dubious Sophists is meant to justify his own aestheticism connected with homosexuality. This becomes clear in the later poem “Young Men of Sidon (a.d. 400),” where he summons up a group of passionate young men listening to an actor brought in to entertain them: The room opened out on the garden, / and a delicate odor of flowers / mingled with the scent / of the five perfumed young Sidonians. A similar group of young men, in the poem “Herodis Attikos,” training as future orators, discuss “their exquisite love affairs” at “their choice banquets,” when the talk is not “about fine sophistry.” They ponder approvingly the fate of Herodis, the honors given him, and the uncritical following he enjoyed from Greek youths. So, in some ways, Cavafy’s prose and poetry go hand in hand.

But this prose piece is particularly interesting as disguised autobiography​—​or rather, wishful autobiography. So, for example, in the conclusion about the Sophists’ present dismissal and neglect, “how unbearable it is to be in such shadows,” clearly a plea for oneself. As a survey of Cavafy’s ideas, however, the ten-page “Twenty-Seven Notes on Poetics and Ethics” is of supreme value. It constitutes a sort of philosophical diary across the years, and is worth greater attention than the few excerpts I can quote here. We begin with bravado: “I feel an exceptional ability within me, I have the confidence that if I wished, I could have become a great doctor or a lawyer or an economist or even an engineer.” Noteworthy are the epigrammatic insights. Take this aphorism: “Do Truth and Falsehood exist? Or is it only the New and the Old that exist​—​with Falsehood merely being the old age of Truth?” Or this highly autobiographical reflection: “I do not know if perversion gives strength. Sometimes I think so. But it is certainly the source of grandeur.” Or consider this fragment of self-criticism: “I realize that I am a coward and cannot act. This is why I only speak. But I do not think that my words are redundant. Someone else will act. But my many words​—​my own, the coward’s​—​will make his actions easier. They pave the way.”

There are shrewd generalizations​—​“For me, that which makes English literature cold .  .  . is the difficulty​—​or the unwillingness​—​to stray from the established, and the fear of offending morality, the pseudo-morality, since that is what we should call a morality that feigns naïveté”​—​and he goes on to praise French books, “both good and bad,” for considering the new, or seemingly new, phase of eros. What a shame, he writes elsewhere, that “circumstances forced [him] to labor greatly to master the English language.” Had it been French, he could have expressed himself more freely! And is he not charming when he writes “how unfair for me to be such a genius and to be neither renowned nor compensated”?

John Simon, author and critic, lives in New York.

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