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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 His prose, however, remained uncollected and unpublished in English​—​until now.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.

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