Passions and Ancient Days
Constantine Cavafy (born 1863 and died 1933) lived in Alexandria (where during the First World War E. M. Forster, employed by the British Red Cross, knew him). He lived and wrote, as befits an Alexandrian, on the edge of modern as well as of classical Greek civilization and of the European symbolist and decadent literature of his time. And yet he seems in some early-Eliotish way at the hidden center of our own time. His poetry might have come out of a shadowy corner of Yeats’s Byzantium. His imagination, as Rex Warner explains in his excellent Introduction to John Mavrogordato’s translation of his poems from the Greek, finds its themes “in the Hellenistic blending of cultures and races in cities like Alexandria or Antioch where Greek and Jew, pagan and Christian, sophist, priest, and barbarian form a complicated and far from Periclean pattern.” One might add to the cities mentioned The Waste Land‘s “Jerusalem Albens Alexandria/Vienna London/Unreal” and, to them, New York, to throw light on the magnetic pull Cavafy has for us.
“There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” These are, surely, the last lines that one would think of in connection with Cavafy’s poetry, which is so far from the world of empire, Caesars, principalities, and powers. Cavafy writes not about Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra and Octavius in their ascendancy, but about Caesarion’s failure and effeteness, the late Romans waiting with longing for the barbarians, the gods forsaking Antony. His world is the opposite of the tide that leads to fortune; but if one inverts Shakespeare’s lines, reads them backward as it were, they throw a sudden light on his poetry. “There is a tide in the affairs of men / Which, taken at the ebb, leads to misfortune.” Cavafy’s main concern is with those who didn’t go out on the tide, or who were left behind, or swept back by it.
He is particularly fascinated by the idea of the moment of choice, of misfortune or disgrace. What his great poems about disastrous moments in classical history and the Greek or Roman worlds in their decadence and his small poems about situations of private depravity have in common is the fascinated sense of the die being cast with fatal results which are still exquisite in the moment of the casting. This is what Antony, at the moment of the choice that leads him to be forsaken by the gods, and the depraved practitioner of “Hellenic love” in a male brothel have in common.
So his poetry is peculiarly about situations that lead—or have led—to ruin. He immortalizes the moment at which the predestined disaster or corruption happened. The reason why this poetry, even in translation, seizes our imaginations (so much that those who love it regard it almost as they would a secret addiction) is that it reaches that part of our consciousness …