He was a poet of a lost world. A hundred years ago, there were still Greek communities along the coast of the Mediterranean, in Asia Minor and in South-East Europe that have since dispersed or died out. I know a little about them since part of my family, on my mother’s side, are descendants of Greek merchants who were permitted to settle in Belgrade by the Ottomans in the late 18th century; they prospered, became wealthy and over time intermarried with Serbs and lost their ethnic distinctness. My mother heard Greek spoken in the homes of certain family members when she was a young girl. I did not, but I remember how foreign these ancient cousins and aunts appeared to me, how cluttered their small, dark apartments were with furniture, their walls covered with Turkish carpets, icons or paintings of bearded priests and plump-looking men with heavy black moustaches who kept a stern eye on me as I poked around. There were also old books and magazines in many languages. These were educated people who had attended schools abroad but whose families had long since gone broke and were at the point of extinction. Those stuffy apartments came to mind as I read about Cavafy’s home in the old Greek quarter in Alexandria, crowded with his mother’s furniture. On the lower floor was a brothel, one of the many on his street, with a church and a hospital also nearby. One can imagine him sitting late into the night in his bedroom, which served as his study, staring through his large spectacles at the half-finished poem lying on his desk or glancing past the oil lamp towards the window and the sound of voices in the street.
‘I begged of you, O Memory, to be my best assistant,’ Cavafy wrote in a poem. He didn’t have to beg. He had no choice. Most likely the past is all they talked about in his family, the many places they had lived and how strange their lives had turned out to be. Constantine Cavafy was born on 29 April 1863 in Alexandria, the last of the nine children of Petros Cavafy and Charikleia Photiades, both of whom came from well-to-do families in Constantinople. Petros had travelled to England in 1836 to join his older brother, and the two of them worked for Greek businesses in Manchester, Liverpool and London until 1849, when they went home to found Cavafy Brothers, a firm that did well for a number of years exporting Egyptian cotton and importing English textiles to Alexandria, where the company had its main office. Unfortunately, Petros died in 1870, when he was 56, leaving his wife and children poorly provided for. The two eldest sons took over the business but their inexperience led to financial difficulties, forcing the family to give up the two-storey house in the exclusive part of Alexandria which housed both the company offices and their large brood. In 1872, facing their first real crisis, the family moved to England, where they remained for six years, living first in Liverpool, then in London, and becoming British citizens. After the family firm was dissolved, they returned to Alexandria in 1877, only to leave again five years later, after anti-Christian riots that caused the death of many Europeans resulted in a British bombardment of the city, severely damaging the house they were renting.
Constantine and his mother stayed with her father in Constantinople for three years. After their return to Alexandria in 1885, he relinquished British citizenship and took up Greek nationality. He worked as a journalist, a broker and an employee of the Egyptian Stock Exchange, before becoming at the age of 29 an office clerk in the Irrigation Service, a position he kept until his retirement thirty years later. He lived with his mother and, after her death in 1899, with one of his brothers, and then alone for the last 25 years of his life. He was not, though, a recluse, as some would like to believe. He spent his evenings in cafés meeting friends and receiving guests at home. People remember him as talkative and amusing. Since Cavafy never sought a commercial publisher for his poems, he needed his small circle of friends, for they were his sole readers and it was to them he sent the pamphlets and broadsides he printed privately from time to time.
Although an enormously learned man, Cavafy had almost no formal education. He briefly attended a commercial school in Alexandria, and that seems to be about all the schooling he ever received. He had a French tutor when he was growing up, and presumably an English one too, since during the years he spent in England, between the ages of nine and 14, he not only learned the language but became familiar with its poetic tradition and wrote his first verses in English. According to people who knew him, he spoke Greek with a slight English accent. In the home of his grandfather in Constantinople he continued his study of languages and read Dante in the original. More important, he began to read modern Greek poetry and to develop his lifelong interest in Byzantine and Hellenic history, from which the material for many of his poems was drawn. Among the poets in that tradition, he particularly admired the ancient Epigrammatists, Simonides of Ceos, Callimachus, Meleager and Lucian. His interest in languages led him to read Yiannis Psiharis, the famous linguist and nationalist, who made fun of poets who used a hybrid of ancient and modern Greek vocabulary and said they should use the language people actually spoke. Cavafy’s apprenticeship lasted roughly from 1882 to 1903. During these years he came at various times under the influence of Shelley, Keats, Hugo, the French Symbolists and Parnassians, as well as the Greek Romantic poets.
He was 41 years old when 14 of his poems appeared in a pamphlet in 1905. The edition was enlarged in 1910 with seven further poems. More were added in subsequent years in broadsheets and booklets, where they were arranged either thematically or chronologically. Although Cavafy is said to have written about seventy poems a year, he kept only four or five and destroyed the rest. He wrote loose iambic verse, either rhymed or free, but none of his poems was without structure. As the years passed, his work began to be printed in magazines both in Alexandria and in Greece. He was at first more appreciated abroad than at home, where his blend of literary and colloquial registers horrified many critics. Providentially, in 1915 he met E.M. Forster, who, having volunteered for the Red Cross, was stationed in Alexandria during the First World War. He arranged the first translations of Cavafy’s work into English and made it known to such figures as T.S. Eliot and D.H. Lawrence. Here is Forster’s description of Cavafy:
a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe. His arms are extended, possibly . . . Yes, it is Mr Cavafy, and he is going either from his flat to the office, or from his office to the flat. If the former, he vanishes when seen, with a slight gesture of despair. If the latter, he may be prevailed upon to begin a sentence – an immense complicated yet shapely sentence, full of parentheses that never get mixed and of reservations that really do reserve, a sentence that moves with logic to its foreseen end, yet to an end that is always more vivid and thrilling than one foresaw.
At the time, even those who knew that Cavafy was a poet of considerable ability were unaware of just how much he had written or that he had already composed some of the most powerful poems of his age. Here, for example, is ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ – his best-known poem, written in November 1898 but not printed until 1904 – in Evangelos Sachperoglou’s new translation, which I prefer slightly to the one by Stratis Haviaras:
– What are we waiting for, assembled in the Forum?
The barbarians are to arrive today.
– Why then such inactivity in the Senate?
Why do the Senators sit back and do not legislate?
Because the barbarians will arrive today.
What sort of laws now can Senators enact?
When the barbarians come, they’ll do the legislating.
– Why is our emperor up and about so early,
and seated at the grandest gate of our city, upon the throne,
in state, wearing the crown?
Because the barbarians will arrive today.
And the emperor expects to receive their leader.
Indeed, he has prepared to present him
with a parchment scroll. Thereon he has
invested him with many names and titles.
– Why have our two consuls and the praetors come out
today in their purple, embroidered togas;
why did they put on bracelets studded with amethysts,
and rings with resplendent, glittering emeralds;
why are they carrying today precious staves
carved exquisitely in gold and silver?
Because the barbarians will arrive today
and such things dazzle the barbarians.
– And why don’t our worthy orators, as always, come out
to deliver their speeches, to have their usual say?
Because the barbarians will arrive today;
and they get bored with eloquence and orations.
– Why has there suddenly begun all this commotion,
and this confusion? (How solemn people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and the squares emptying so swiftly,
and everyone is returning home in deep preoccupation?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some people have arrived from the frontiers,
and said that there are no barbarians anymore.
And now, what will become of us without barbarians?
Those people were some sort of a solution.
Cavafy read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire between 1893 and 1899. He left notes of his disagreements with the historian, who to his displeasure had a low opinion of Byzantium and Christianity. At the same time, as has been pointed out, Gibbon’s ironic view of history became Cavafy’s own. Irony cured him of both Romantic historiography and Symbolist mysticism and made him a modern poet. In ‘Waiting for the Barbarians’, which is still an apt description of any state that needs enemies, real or imaginary, as a perpetual excuse, the defenders capitulate morally even before the enemy shows up. ‘I am a poietes historikos,’ a historical poet or poet-historian, Cavafy said of himself. What the poet notices – and the historian averts his eyes to – is the degree to which folly, that child of absolute power, rules events; in other words, a world in which a fatal self-delusion that is both comic and tragic is always with us.
Cavafy’s ‘canon’ comprises 154 poems. These two new books – Sachperoglou’s Collected Poems and Haviaras’s The Canon – translate each and every poem. Some thirty unfinished poems, published after his death, are also very much worth reading, but are not included in either edition. Cavafy said that his poems fell into three categories: poems which are not precisely ‘philosophical’ but provoke thought; historical poems; and hedonistic or aesthetic poems. The first tend to be didactic, the second are mostly dramatic monologues and the third lyrics. There are also poems that do not quite fit these categories, like the marvellous ‘Supplication’, in which the mother of a sailor goes to church to pray at the feet of the Virgin for his safe return, while the icon listens solemnly, knowing already that her son will never come back.
If he hadn’t been a poet, Cavafy said, he would have been a historian. ‘In part to examine an era/and in part to while away the time,/last night I picked up to read/ a collection of Ptolemaic inscriptions,’ is how he begins one poem. The historical periods that interested him were the Hellenic Age (fourth to first century BC), the Roman (first century BC to fourth century AD) and the late Byzantine (11th to 14th century), with their cosmopolitan way of life, their high civilisation and the political and religious turmoil that eventually did them in. Small episodes or debacles in the history of old Alexandrians, Antiochians, Seleucians or the Hellenes of Egypt, Syria and Medea provide his subjects. Cavafy’s historical poems are both nostalgic and realistic. He may grow dreamy – as he often does – thinking of some beautiful young man’s heroic life and early death, but he doesn’t forget the cynical power struggles of the day. He’s ‘more coroner than commentator, equally disinclined to offer blame or grant the benefit of the doubt’, is how Seamus Heaney puts it in his foreword to Haviaras’s translations. Tyrants with one mad idea in their head fascinated Cavafy. He has six poems, for example, about Julian the Apostate, a vicious fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to abolish Christianity and return to an intolerant version of paganism. He wrote often about people caught between the two, as in ‘Priest at the Serapeion’, beautifully translated by Haviaras, in which a Christian priest laments the death of his father, a pagan priest in the temple of Serapis at Alexandria:
My old man, my kindly father,
whose love for me was ever constant,
I mourn for my old man, my kindly father,
who died just the other day, a little before dawn.
Good Jesus, I try, in every deed,
in every word and every single thought,
I try with all my heart to abide
by the principles of your holy Church.
I turn away from those who would deny you.
But now I mourn; now I grieve, good Jesus,
for my kindly father, even though he was –
it’s a terrible thing to admit – a priest
at the most-accursed Serapeion.
The so-called hedonistic or aesthetic poems deal mainly with homoerotic love. Cavafy did not bother to conceal the fact that his sexual inclination, as he wrote in a poem, was much despised, strongly forbidden, but nevertheless innate. His journals reveal that he was less tormented by his homosexuality than by his guilt over masturbation. As far as we know, Cavafy had only one long relationship, with a man he made his literary executor ten years before his death in 1933 from throat cancer. The poems make plain that there were many casual and perhaps a few more substantial affairs. Their subject, almost without exception, is the fading memory of some working-class youth, the short time they spent together, the sensual pleasure he came to experience, or never got to experience, and the brief moment of bliss that he despairs of ever knowing again. They tend to be marred by sentimentality, but when they work they have a toughness about them and a detachment, as if the action was being shown on a movie screen. This is ‘Has Come to Rest’, translated by Haviaras:
It must have been one o’clock at night,
perhaps half past one.
In a corner of the taverna,
behind the wooden partition,
save for the two of us the place was altogether deserted.
A kerosene lamp gave scarcely any light at all.
The waiter, exhausted, nodded off in the doorway.
No one could actually see us. But we’d
already provoked ourselves so thoroughly
that we were incapable of restraint.
Our clothing half-opened – not much to begin with,
that month of July being so divinely sultry.
The delight of flesh by means
of half-opened clothing;
a glimpse of bared flesh – an image enduring
26 years; and which now has come
to rest here in these verses.
For someone whose preoccupation in much of what he wrote was with the erotic, Cavafy is a strangely chaste poet. He was a sensualist who left unmentioned what he was most excited about. His descriptions of love-making never get specific. It is up to the reader’s imagination to supply the missing body parts. That may work in the poem I just quoted, but not in others. Cavafy avoided imagery, similes and rich vocabulary in most of his poems. He used words in their primary meaning and was perfectly satisfied in calling a naked body young and beautiful and leaving it at that. In his view, as Peter Mackridge reminds us in his informative introduction to Sachperoglou’s translations, this is not an issue. Art doesn’t represent reality, imitate life or copy nature. Experience is primarily an aesthetic matter. It imposes its own will on the subject, removing from it the contingencies of the natural and social worlds. Not only are there no sexual organs in Cavafy, but his lovers aren’t individualised. Are they Greeks or Arabs? He doesn’t say. Shockingly, there are no Egyptians in his Alexandria.
Whatever one thinks of this view, it makes it tough on translators who are often confronted with poems consisting almost entirely of general statements with little poetry in them. Here’s Sachperoglou’s translation of ‘To Sensual Pleasure’:
Joy and balm of my life: the memory of the hours
when I found and held onto sensual pleasure as I wished.
Joy and balm of my life: for me who spurned
every delight of routine amours.
Haviaras’s translation is no better, and Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s earlier versions, as well as those of Rae Dalven, are equally hopeless. The same problem occurs in many poems. Great poet though he was, Cavafy often employed clichés. This is especially true in poems in which he attempts an analysis of his emotional life. We come across phrases like ‘my entire being exuded/the pent-up sensual emotion,’ and many others of similar banality that no translator can improve on. This makes all the books of his poetry in translation uneven and difficult to recommend over the others. A reader in love with Cavafy has no choice but to own several, since it often happens that where one translator comes up short, the other does better. Every time I’m struck with admiration for the poetic qualities of Haviaras’s translation (he even manages to reproduce the rhymes of some of the early poems), I recall a poem Sachperoglou has done exceedingly well. Such as ‘Ithaca’:
When you set out on the journey to Ithaca,
pray that the road be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the raging Poseidon do not fear:
you’ll never find the likes of these on your way,
if lofty be your thoughts, if rare emotion
touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
the fierce Poseidon you’ll not encounter,
unless you carry them along within your soul,
unless your soul raises them before you.
Pray that the road be long;
that there be many a summer morning,
when with what delight, what joy,
you’ll enter into harbours yet unseen;
that you may stop at Phoenician emporia
and acquire all the fine wares,
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
as many sensuous perfumes as you can;
that you may visit many an Egyptian city,
to learn and learn again from lettered men.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not rush the voyage in the least.
Better it last for many years;
and once you’re old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you’ve gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.
Ithaca gave you the wondrous voyage:
without her you’d never have set out.
But she has nothing to give you any more.
If then you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
As wise as you’ve become, with such experience, by now
you will have come to know what Ithacas really mean.
This is enchanting, and in many of his poems, as here, the language, no matter how plain and prosaic, achieves eloquence and elegance. ‘Ithaca’ is Cavafy’s version of Baudelaire’s ‘The Voyage’ and Rimbaud’s ‘Drunken Boat’, except its tone is that of someone accepting his fate rather than rebelling. While the French poets long to escape the monotony of their lives and set sail for distant lands where undreamed-of adventures and thrills await them, for the Greek poet what matters is not the destination but the journey itself. And what other consolation could there be for an exile, someone set adrift from his origins by the force of circumstance, who has come to know that action and self-knowledge are incompatible, except to seek wisdom in what life has thrown his way?