|An Introduction ||Edmund Keeley |
| The essential thing about Cavafy, most of his early commentators agreed, was his uniqueness―and this was said before the term became a descriptive cliché. E. M. Forster, the first of his British admirers along with T. E. Lawrence and Arnold Toynbee, defined Cavafy’s attitude, after meeting the Alexandrian during World War I, in the now famous phrase that distinguished Cavafy from his contemporaries: this poet stood “at a slight angle to the universe.” Some twenty years after the poet’s death in 1933, W. H. Auden spoke of Cavafy’s “unique perspective on the world” and his “unique tone of voice.” And what George Seferis, his first truly perceptive Greek critic, found unique about him was that, great as many of his mature poems proved to be, no one could have predicted on the basis of his earliest work that he had sufficient talent to be regarded in due course as a poet of substance, let alone the most important poet of the twentieth century writing in Greek. What even Seferis could not have predicted was that, by the last decade of the century, Cavafy would come to be so regarded not only in Greece but wherever his work was broadly translated. Auden anticipated this development when he indicated that one proof of Cavafy’s uniqueness was the apparent capacity of his work to survive translation, so that the reader who has no Greek still feels on reading a poem by Cavafy that “nobody else could possibly have written it.”|
Those who look to the surface of a life for signs of genius would also have had trouble predicting Cavafy’s posthumous celebrity, even if there were aspects of the life that seem unique as well. For one, though a poet sublimely erudite in Greek history and well-read first in English and then in French literature, he had almost no formal education that appears in the record beyond a brief period in an Alexandrian commercial school. And though cosmopolitan in his outlook, after he committed himself to poetry he rarely left his native city of Alexandria to travel elsewhere, in fact spent most of his mature years working as a clerk in the Irrigation Service of the local Ministry of Public Works. We learn from Robert Liddell’s biography that Cavafy was the youngest of nine siblings and that he lived with his mother until her death in 1899 (he was thirty-five), then for a while with his brother Paul, and, during his last twenty-five years, alone in the same second-floor apartment on a street (Rue Lepsius) that was considerably less fashionable than what his parents had been accustomed to before the collapse of Cavafy Brothers, the family’s once lucrative export-import firm. The apartment, now a museum honoring the poet, has a balcony overlooking streets that in those days belonged to an old Greek quarter with both a respectable and an ill-famed aspect: a hospital, the patriarchal church of St. Saba, and, on the ground floor of Cavafy’s building, a brothel. The poet was reported to have said: “Where could I live better? Below, the brothel caters for the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die.”
Though the choice of Alexandria for a restricted life proved essential for the poetry, Cavafy did not choose it easily. As late as 1907, when the poet was forty-four years old, he was still tormented by the prospect of remaining in the same city: “By now I’ve gotten used to Alexandria,” he writes in a note to himself, “and its very likely that even if I were rich I’d stay here. But in spite of this, how the place disturbs me. What trouble, what a burden small cities are―what lack of freedom. I’d stay here (then again I’m not entirely certain that I’d stay) because it is like a native country for me, because it is related to my life’s memories. But how much a man like me―so different―needs a large city. London, let’s say ....” As a homosexual with limited resources living in a society that one poem calls “prudish and stupid” (“Days of 1896”), Cavafy clearly felt confined by the “small corner” of the world that torments the speaker in the 1910 poem “The City.” At the same time, as the home of his “life’s memories,” Alexandria soon became the primary source for poem after poem that invoked, through memory, the more or less secret erotic experience of his youth that he decided to reveal with growing candor and verisimilitude. And by 1910, three years after his ambivalent note and after he had settled into the Rue Lepsius apartment for the rest of his life, signalling his accommodation with the city, Alexandria began to be transformed in the central “historical” myth of his mature work.
This development of both an increasingly free exploitation of his youthful eroticism and an inventive exploitation of his city’s history from Hellenistic times through the Arab conquest emerged from a turning point in his understanding of his vocation as a poet. Cavafy himself marked the date by dividing his poems into those published before 1911 and those after. By that date he had decided to put aside most of what he had written during previous decades, over two hundred poems, and to preserve only twenty four (among them one of his most famous, “Waiting for the Barbarians”) that would join another one hundred and thirty that he wrote in subsequent years, the so-called Cavafy canon: wrote but did not publish in the usual way. One aspect of Cavafy’s aspiration to write as he chose, without concern for the society of his day and its market-place, was his idiosyncratic mode of promulgating his work. He never offered a volume of poems for sale during his lifetime. And a number of good poems of his maturity actually remained unpublished in any form, kept among his papers for possible revision at some later date (five of the six translations that conclude this selection are of poems recovered from Cavafy’s papers by George Savidis). Those poems that Cavafy allowed to be printed during his lifetime were distributed to a restricted audience. He would pass them out as they seemed ready to his trusted friends first in sample pamphlets, then as broadsheets and offprints, these usually gathered into folders that could be supplemented regularly, some of the older poems revised by hand now and then, a few suppressed. And when the clips in the folders could no longer bear the burden of additional poems, the poet would withdraw some and have them sewn into booklets. He died at 70 without having published a collected edition of his work, presumably because he did not consider it ready yet for that kind of permanent definition. He is reported to have said during his last days that he still had at least twenty-five poems to write, and his archive held a number that he apparently considered still in draft form.
This mode of publication, if it can be called that, suggests not only an unusual aesthetic asceticism―no interest at all in commerce and a total commitment to the craft of poetry―but also what George Seferis saw to be Cavafy’s perception of his oeuvre as a life-long work in progress, still incomplete at his death. If we accept Seferis’s term, the work in progress begins in the crucial year 1910, when Cavafy published two poems that seem to have emerged from his acceptance of Alexandria as his inevitable home. In “The City,” a type of “didactic” monologue that the poet adopted briefly, the poet’s persona tells the poem’s “you” that he should not look for things elsewhere because the city will always pursue him until he grows old in the same streets and same neighborhoods that have been his fate all these years (wasted years, in this case). And in “The Satrapy” the persona spells out what the poem’s self-exiled “you” has come to know all too well: what his heart really longs for are the Crowns of Laurel, the priceless acclaim, of his home city that he has too readily exchanged for “satrapies and things like that” in another country.
Two poems that Cavafy published the following year dramatize themes and attitudes that would become central to his work henceforth. In one of his finest poems, “The God Abandons Antony” (written in 1910), the persona’s advice to Mark Antony in his last hours gives him occasion first of all for deifying Alexandria: Cavafy alters his source in Plutarch and Shakespeare by substituting his home city for the gods Dionysus and Hercules. We see that Cleopatra’s Alexandria has become the god that Roman Antony finally chose to worship and that abandons him in his defeat. But as a city given him for pleasures which he proved worthy of accepting, he must now honor that gift by facing its going away without illusions and “full of courage.” What has been called Cavafy’s hedonistic bias becomes apparent in his choosing the “final delectation” of exquisite music as a sign of all the other delectations that the noble Roman came to know in the city he is now losing.
In the poem “Ithaka,” another of Cavafy’s finest that he gave a final draft in 1910, the poet again transforms his source, in this case Homer’s account of Odysseus’ return to his home island from the Trojan War. Cavafy’s transforming is a variation on Dante’s and Tennyson’s handling of the same theme. Both of these poets offered an Odysseus who arrived home after a long absence only to find Ithaka less than fully satisfying and who soon made plans to travel forth a second time. Cavafy answers his predecessors by having his persona tell the Odysseus figure that arriving in Ithaka is what he is destined for, and he must keep that always in mind: one’s destiny, the inevitable end of the journey, is a thing to be faced for what it is, without illusions, as we saw in “The God Abandons Antony”:
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
What Cavafy’s Odysseus will have understood, in contrast to Homer’s nostalgic hero and even those dissatisfied and still-hungry heroes of Cavafy’s predecessors, is that the meaning of Ithaka is in the voyage home that it inspired. It is not reaching home or again escaping its limitations once there that should occupy Odysseus’s spirit and his body so much as those elevated thoughts and rare excitement that are a product of the voyage back. This new perspective is what will free the voyager’s soul of the monsters and obstacles and even Homer’s angry god Poseidon, so that when the voyager reaches his Ithaka he will be rich not with what Ithaka has to offer him on his return, but with all that he has gained along the way, including his coming to know that this Cavafian perspective on things, this unhurried devotion to pleasure and knowledge, is Ithaka’s ultimate value.
The adventures and discoveries that are to keep Cavafy’s Odysseus entertained until old age take him to the heart of the Alexandrian’s only partially Hellenized world, not mainland Greece and its neighboring islands, but new country for Homer’s hero, where he will take pleasure in the sensual properties of Phoenician trading stations and learn from the scholars of Egyptian cities. What has been called Cavafy’s hedonistic bias is again clearly evident here, but equally important, what we might call his diaspora bias. As the diaspora philosopher in “Going Back Home from Greece” puts it, those Greeks who come from the waters of Cyprus, Syria, and Egypt carry Asiatic affections and feelings that are sometimes alien to Hellenism and that in any case are not something to be ashamed of or covered up but honored as cause for pride.
In Cavafy’s mythical world, racial purity is not only boring―as E. M. Forster once pointed out―but limiting, confining, especially among those for whom affections are crucial. Knowing oneself and admitting the truth of what one knows are also crucial, while affectation is ludicrous. And puritanism is equally ludicrous, whether the source be pagan or Christian―even if Cavafy chose to be particularly satirical of Julian the Apostate for attempting to introduce his excessively puritanical paganism into the diaspora regions where Christians had become well-established hedonists, with an abiding love for art, theater, language, and the pleasures of the flesh.
Cavafy’s Alexandrian myth, created in the year “Ithaka” took its final form, was expanded during the years following to cover a broad world of Hellenism that included regions to the east and a stretch of time from Alexander’s days to the fall of the Byzantine Empire. From the myth we learn that challenging one’s destiny may give the gods an excuse to do one in before the journey’s end, but so will a soul closed to those things that satisfy the spirit and the body. The myth teaches us what those things are: beautiful bodies given to sensual pleasure, imaginative creation of various kinds, mixed cultures―especially those mixed cultures dominated by the Greek language―remembered sensations from early love affairs, the value of both art and artifice, of spectacle, of politic theater. When, in the 1912 poem “Alexandrian Kings,” Antony and Cleopatra make an attempt to impress Rome by taking their children out to the Alexandrian gymnasium to crown them with meaningless titles referring to regions they did not command―Armenia, Media, Parthia, Cilicia, Syria, Phoenicia―the politically shrewd Alexandrians “knew of course / that this was all mere words, all theater,” but
...the day was warm and poetic,
the sky a pale blue,
the Alexandria Gymnasium
a complete artistic triumph,
the courtiers wonderfully sumptuous...
and the Alexandrians thronged to the festival
full of enthusiasm, and shouted acclamations
in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
charmed by the lovely spectacle―
though they knew of course what all this was worth,
what empty words they really were, these kingships.
Along with political shrewdness, Cavafy’s myth celebrates the virtues of historical perspicacity, of seeing things not only for what they are and but what they are likely to become, including the inevitable reversals in history that finally teach one not so much the moral, as the tragic, sense of life. And the myth teaches the virtues of irony. What becomes a major object of the poet’s irony throughout his mature work is the kind of excess that leads to hubris, whether represented by the actions of pagans or Christians. We see this at the beginning of his work in progress in the lyrical 1911 dramatic monologue, “Ionic,” where a 4th century Christian speaker reveals that for all the violent effort on the part of his fellow Christians to destroy the remnant paganism of those days, the ancient gods do not die so easily and occasionally reappear in the landscape they still love to show that it is potent with their life:
That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
And sometimes a young etherial figure,
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.
Another example of Cavafy’s balanced perspective is the poem that completed his work during his lifetime, “On the Outskirts of Antioch,” written in 1932-33. Here we again find a 4th century Christian speaker, resident of Syrian Antioch, who portrays Julian the Apostate as an excessively intolerant defender of the ancient gods―which he no doubt was―having a temper tantrum at the expense of the local Christians and their holy martyr Vavylas, buried in the precinct of the temple of Apollo at Daphni. Julian is depicted as shouting ”... take him away, this Vavylas. / You there, do you hear? He gets on Apollo’s nerves. / Grab him, raise him at once / dig him out, take him away, throw him out, / take him wherever you want. This isn’t a joke.” Vavylas is removed. And the Christian speaker offers this bit of sarcasm to conclude the poem:
And hasn’t the temple done brilliantly since!
In no time at all a colossal fire broke out,
a terrible fire,
and both the temple and Apollo burned to the ground.
Ashes the idol: dirt to be swept away.
Julian blew up, and he spread it around―
What else could he do?―that we, the Christians,
had set the fire. Let him say so.
It hasn’t been proved. Let him say so.
The essential thing is: he blew up.
The essential thing is that the Christian speaker has cast out Julian’s pagan god―in spirit if not in fact―as mercilessly and fanatically as he depicts Julian’s treatment of the martyr Vavylas. An eye for an eye; no charity here. And Cavafy’s quiet irony satirizes both. Joseph Brodsky tells us in an illuminating review-essay on Cavafy that the poet “did not choose between paganism and Christianity but was swinging between them like a pendulum.” I would modify the metaphor by suggesting that it is the speaking voice―in this case, voices―that does the swinging; Cavafy’s perspective is what holds the pendulum in place, aloof from the action, not taking sides except when arrogance, fanaticism, intolerance, hubris, or other excess earns his irony.
One way that Cavafy chose to keep a certain distance from his speakers and establish a point of view that transcended the biased depiction of any given moment in history, especially in his later work, was by way of dramatic irony in the traditional sense. For this he had to count on the reader’s familiarity with a specific historical context―not always easy in view of his predilection for the by-ways of history. The best of his dramatic monologues play subtly with this mode, which, there is good reason to believe, was influenced by his reading Robert Browning. The late poem, “In the Year 200 B. C.,” is perhaps the most satisfying example. Here the speaker’s attitude in narrating history that began 130 years before his day reflects the particular historical situation established by the title. He begins his monologue with some irony about the Spartans (Lacedaimonians) of 330 B.C. who refused to join Macedonian Alexander’s great pan-Hellenic expedition because, according to the speaker, they weren’t about to be led and ordered around in an expedition that didn’t have a Spartan king in command. As a result, they not only denied themselves the glory of taking part in Alexander’s magnificent victories but had no claim to the great diaspora world that emerged from his conquests, here eulogized by the proud speaker:
And from this marvelous pan-Hellenic expedition
triumphant, brilliant in every way,
celebrated on all sides, glorified
as no other has ever been glorified,
incomparable, we emerged:
the great new Hellenic world.
We the Alexandrians, the Antiochians,
the Selefkians, and the countless
other Greeks of Egypt and Syria,
and those of Media, and Persia, and all the rest:
with our far-flung supremacy,
our flexible policy of judicious integration,
and our Common Greek Language
which we carried as far as Bactria, as far as the Indians.
Talk about Lacedaimonians after that.
The dramatic irony here is that the speaker’s celebration of Alexander’s diaspora world―which Cavafy himself celebrated in earlier poems―comes just three years before the last of the Macedonian Philips was routed by the Romans at Cynoscephalae and just ten years before Antiochus III the Great was defeated at Magnesia, thus establishing Roman supremacy over the great new world that is eulogized so glowingly in 200 B. C. Cavafy knows his history and counts on his reader to know more than the speaker can know, even if he speaks the truth as he sees it from his limited perspective: Alexander’s victories did have the grand consequences he outlines. But only for a while, and that is the point. In the end one must in fact talk about the Spartans after all that, because their haughty view of themselves in 330 B. C. was followed by a decline that anticipates what will follow our speaker’s rather haughty view of his history before its inevitable reversals under conquering Rome. This is the poet’s unspoken perspective above the speaker’s particular bias: the perspective of a poet-historian who sees a broader and necessarily more tragic pattern behind even those periods of historical greatness that best manifest the cultural values he believes in, here represented by “our flexible policy of judicious integration” and “our Common Greek language.”
A fundamental aspect of Cavafy’s unique perspective on the world, to adopt Auden’s phrase, is his capacity to act as a mostly unspoken conscience that makes us recognize any individual success and any moment of historical ascendancy as subject to reversal by the gods. It is a perspective that, without making its case overtly, serves to warn us against those excesses that lead to fanaticism, intolerance, or self-satisfied complacency and that finds wisdom and courage to reside in a recognition of human limitations, above all the inevitable fate of all things mortal.
Cavafy’s erotic poems, whether set in ancient or contemporary Alexandria, are colored by the same tragic sense that we find in what he himself designated as his historical or philosophical poems (categories, along with the erotic, that, he reminds his reader, often merge). The love affairs depicted are sometimes uninhibited and sometimes thoroughly satisfying, especially when imagination plays a more active role than reality (as in “Half an Hour”), but they are often clouded by the lover’s feeling that the pleasure is “fatal” or “illicit” or “tainted,” in any case “condemned” by society and doomed to be transient:
It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway―
the experience of years makes that clear.
Even so, Fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly
It was soon over, that wonderful life . . .
(from “In the Evening”)
Yet however fated, the erotic life in Cavafy has its redeeming qualities, first of all in the intensity of its pleasures, as we see in the same poem (“how strong the scents were, / what a magnificent bed we lay in, / what pleasure we gave our bodies”), then in the intoxication that comes with remembering the experience years later, and most of all, in the new life that the experience finds in poetry:
Delight of flesh between
those half opened clothes:
quick baring of flesh―the vision of it
that has crossed twenty-six years
and comes to rest now in this poetry.
(from “Comes to Rest”)
Even in those poems dominated by a sense of degradation or loss on the part of the lovers, the poet often discovers in those lovers a sensual purity and physical beauty that deserve to be celebrated, especially in recollection. Memory becomes the means for preserving what was ephemeral, the means for fixing beauty that time has altered and for rediscovering through fantasy a sensuality that was fleeting, however passionate. And it is only through memory that the poet can hope to re-create the original shape of his eroticism and give it new life in his art. By the time the poet neared the end of his “work in progress,” memory was shown to be the single avenue to some degree of permanence for those committed to the “Alexandrian” way of life as Cavafy conceived it, with its devotion to exquisite if transient pleasures, its love of the Greek language, its worship of beauty whatever the devotee’s particular religion or moment in history.
The subtlest evocation of this theme is in the late poem “Myris: Alexandria, A. D. 340,” longest of those in the “canon,” a dramatic monologue in which the erotic and the historical are brilliantly fused. The drama opens with a typical Cavafian representation of conflicting ideologies: an unnamed pagan speaker attending the funeral of his Christian lover, Myris, both initiates in the “Alexandrian” way of life, the Christian “more devoted to pleasure than all of us,” beautiful, and “with a perfect feel for Greek rhythm.” As preparations for the funeral go forward, the pagan speaker becomes increasingly uneasy among the “precious carpets, and vessels in silver and gold,” hearing prayers to Jesus and Mary that are unfamiliar to him. He begins to remember several occasions when his lover, who never spoke about his religion, nevertheless drew himself back from the group of initiates as they made certain pagan gestures. The speaker finds doubt setting in, and the drama now becomes a struggle between the influence of Christian ritual as performed by priests “praying loudly / for the young man’s soul” and the influence of the lost passionate life that the two lovers had known―a struggle, finally, between Christian mystery and worldly memory:
I noticed with how much diligence,
how much intense concern
for the forms of their religion, they were preparing
everything for the Christian funeral.
And suddenly an odd sensation
took hold of me. Indefinably I felt
as if Myris were going from me;
I felt that he, a Christian, was united
with his own people and that I was becoming
a stranger, a total stranger. I even felt
a doubt come over me: that I’d also been deceived by my passion
and had always been a stranger to him.
I rushed out of their horrible house,
rushed away before my memory of Myris
could be captured, could be perverted by their Christianity.
Memory, the resource that preserves and finally re-creates the transient life of the senses, becomes, in the concluding lines of this monologue, the one relic of the speaker’s passion, the one access to some life after death, that can challenge the Christian influence directed at capturing dead Myris’s soul. The preservation through remembrance of the lost passionate life in its purity, untouched by doubt or alien intrusion, appears to be the ultimate act of faith for an Alexandrian hedonist of the Cavafian persuasion, here demonstrated by the speaker’s rushing out of the Christian’s house. That his act of faith and what it represents are finally as doomed as the speaker’s own life, in contrast to the Christian expectation, does not diminish its poignancy―even when we remember that Cavafy himself, on his deathbed, was visited in the hospital by the patriarch of Alexandria, and though the poet refused to see him at first because the visit had been arranged without his knowledge, in the end consented and received the last sacraments.
Cavafy’s mythical world presents us with an image of the good life―the life of exquisite sensuality, refined tastes, and mixed faiths―that more often than not carries within it the ripening prospect of its own death, yet in his work there appears to be no other life more worthy of celebration. And if there is a degree of ambivalence in his stance, this is consistent with his generally balanced, detached perspective. But it is not a cold detachment. The poet’s sympathies, rarely expressed overtly, can usually be understood to go out to those who are the trapped victims of the ironies he perceives and dramatizes, especially to those fated souls with the courage to see themselves and their tragic circumstances for what they are. His mockery of self-delusion, in particular among the powerful, and his empathy with the outsider who faces his predicament without illusions are among the qualities that make him seem so contemporary. As ironist and realist, his vision is readily translatable into the language of contemporary experience; and the commitment to hedonism, to political skepticism, and to honest self-awareness that animate the special way of life at the heart of his myth anticipate the prevailing aura of our times.
Cavafy’s perspective on the world was indeed unique in that it could be projected beyond the specific context of his individual creations, with judgement suspended and mercy granted, though not to the viciously power-hungry, or puritanically arrogant, or the blindly self-deceived. And if translation into another language cannot completely capture all aspects of his unique tone of voice, particularly in those early poems that he rhymed strictly and in later poems where his sometimes quaint mixture of purist and demotic Greek was used to dramatic effect, my hope―in keeping with Auden’s conviction―is that what comes through in English is more than enough to show why his deserves to be regarded as a major voice in the twentieth century.
|Edmund Keeley, “An Introduction”. In The Essential Cavafy. Selected and with an Introduction by Edmund Keeley. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Notes by George Savidis. The Ecco Press, 1995 |