Cavafy, a Critical Biography
C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems
Mr. Liddell’s is the first life in English of the Greek poet Cavafy. A sensitive and informed chronicler, he also quotes generously from Greek sources, Cavafy’s diaries and scholia, as well as recollections of people close to him. His treatment of Cavafy’s social and sexual life is entirely plausible. Mr. Liddell knows Egypt, too, and guides his reader blindfolded through the Alexandrian genealogical maze, as through the smart or infamous quarters of the city.
Born there (in 1863) into a world of forms and frivolities, Cavafy was to be anchored firmly beyond its shallows, less by impoverishment—for in “le grand cérémonial du tralala” a good family like his would still have a part to play—than by his vocation and his sexuality. He was seven when his father died. There followed years of displacement from one Unreal City to another. His closest ties were to his mother Haricleia, “one of the most beautiful women in Alexandria” and one of the most idle—“her son affectionately addressed her (in English) as ‘Fat One’ “; and to his two immediately older brothers, the dependable John who worshiped him, who even translated him, and the unhappy Paul who drank and ran up debts. The latter and Cavafy, both over forty, still shared a flat and “a ‘phaeton’ in which they drove about. Mention is made of their rings and their ties; one is afraid they may have been rather ‘flashy,’ trying to prolong youth into middle age.” Paul finally went to the Riviera and made ends meet as a kind of Jamesian companion-guide. “To the last he sighed for the great days in Alexandria…. Constantine never mentioned him to his younger literary friends.”
The prevailing idea of culture cannot have gone much beyond salon music, vers de société, and lip-service to the illustrious dead. Half Cavafy’s life was over before he met, in Athens, any real authors. One of them noted his smart clothes, “slight English accent” in Greek, and how “all his ceremonies and politenesses strike an Athenian used to…the shy naïveté and simple awkwardness of our men of letters.”
The difficulty of being Cavafy’s kind of homosexual in Alexandria in those years must have been staggering: how to choose among a thousand daily opportunities. Cavafy by and large stuck to Greeks, young men of the working class. “We do not know whether his emotions were in any way involved,” writes Mr. Liddell, meaning by emotions “genuine affection” rather than the mere desire, compassion, and regret that fill the poems. But he makes the essential observation that
out of the mess and squalor that occupied part of his life he has created a unique order and beauty. Homosexuality was no doubt a disadvantage to Paul Cavafy, who was mondain, and at one time hoped to make a marriage of convenience; but it made Constantine what he was.
As Constantine knew very well:
My younger days, my sensual life—
how clearly I see their meaning now.
What needless, futile regret….
In the loose living of my early years
the impulses of my poetry were shaped,
the boundaries of my art were plotted.
At thirty Cavafy settled down in Alexandria’s Ministry of Public Works, as a clerk in the Dantesque “Third Circle of Irrigation.” Here he stayed (he was also a broker on the Egyptian stock exchange) until his retirement thirty years later. He would not hit his stride as a poet, in fact, until after the office routine had provided the foil his ever livelier imagination needed. His successor, then a young employee, recalls:
On very rare occasions he locked himself into his room. [Cavafy was by then a “sub-director.”] Sometimes my colleague and I looked through the key-hole. We saw him lift up his hands like an actor, and put on a strange expression as if in ecstasy, then he would bend down to write something. It was the moment of inspiration. Naturally we found it funny and we giggled. How were we to imagine that one day Mr. Cavafy would be famous!
After the Fat One’s death and Paul’s removal to Europe, Cavafy spent his last twenty-five years alone in a flat on rue Lepsius—“rue Clapsius” as it was known to some, a neighborhood of brothels and shops gradually overtaking some nice old houses. Indoors one found a high concentration of the usual period junk, inlaid tables, carpets, mirrors, shabby divans, fringes of society, photographs, a servant bringing drinks and appetizers cheap or not, depending on who was there; the lighting constantly adjusted—an extra candle lit “if a beautiful face appeared in the room.” The company seems to have been predominantly younger men of letters; but one may bear in mind that the guest from a higher or lower world seldom troubles to write memoirs.
Cavafy is that rare poet whose essential quality comes through even in translation. One sees why Auden thought so. By limiting his subject to human deeds and desires, and his mode to statement, Cavafy makes the rest of us seem to be reading ourselves laboriously backward in a cipher of likenesses and generalizations. He writes without metaphor. Of the natural world we see nothing. The Nile?—an agreeable site for a villa. Flowers?—appropriate to grave or banquet table. Not for Cavafy to presume upon his kinship with sunset and octopus. Having once and for all given the lie to the nonhuman picturesque in eight appalling lines (“Morning Sea”), he is free to travel light and fast and far. His reader looks through brilliantly focused vignettes to the tonic ironies beyond.
What ironies? Well, take “The Mirror in the Front Hall.” The handsome delivery boy gets that far and no further into the house, whose rich privacies would in any case be lost on him. Nor is Cavafy about to pretend interest in anything so conventional, so conjectural, as one more young man’s inner life. Is there to be no “understanding,” then, beyond that which brings him and his boys together in some anonymous room with its bed and its ceiling fixture? Ignorance is bliss, he might answer—or would he? for it is not ignorance so much as a willed narrowing of frame; and it is not bliss but something drier and longer-lasting, that radiates its own accumulated knowledge. Always, in Cavafy, what one poem withholds, another explains. This coldness of his comes through elsewhere as reticence imposed by an encounter with a god,
his hair black and perfumed—
the people going by would gaze at him,
and one would ask the other if he knew him,
if he was a Greek from Syria, or a stranger.
But some who looked more care- fully
would understand and step aside…
Indeed, one way to sidestep any real perception of others is to make gods of them. But the ironic wind blows back and forth. The gods appeared to characters in Homer, disguised as a mortal friend or stranger. Put in terms acceptable nowadays, that was a stylized handling of those moments familiar to us all, when the stranger’s idle word or the friend’s sudden presence happens to strike deeply into our spirits. Moments at the opposite pole from indifference; though on that single pole Cavafy’s world revolves.
The unity of divine and human, or past and present, is as real to him as their disparity. Between the poor, unlettered, present-day young men and the well-to-do, educated ones in his historical poems (“Myris…reciting verses / with his perfect feeling for Greek rhythm”) there is an unbroken bond of type and disposition: what Gongora called “centuries of beauty in a few years of age.” This bond is at the marrow of Cavafy’s feeling. It reflects his situation as a Greek, the dynamics of his language—indeed the whole legacy of Hellenism—and incidentally distinguishes him from, say, that German baron who spent his adult life in Taormina photographing urchins draped in sheets and wreathed in artificial roses.
The first verb to learn in Ancient Greek was $$$. Pronounced piedew-o, it meant “I teach.” In Modern Greek the same verb, spelled as before, is pronounced pe-dhe-vo, and means “I torment.” The old word $$$ (good) has come to mean “simple-minded.” These shifts are revealing, and their slightness reassures. I have heard my host in a remote farmhouse tell Aesop’s fables as if he had made them up; that they had made him up was closer to the truth. I have heard a mother advise her child to tell its bad dream to the lighted bulb hanging from a kitchen ceiling, and for the same reason that Clytemnestra, in one of the old plays, tells hers to the sun. For while the ancient glory may have grown dim and prosaic, many forms of it are still intact. (One feels it less in Italy than in Greece where, thanks first to Byzantium and then to the Turks, the famous Rebirth of Learning had no opportunity to sweep away just this kind of dusty, half-understood wisdom.)
So, in Cavafy, the Greek—or Hellenized—character shines forth: scheming, deluded, gifted, noble, weak. The language survives the reversals of faith and empire, and sharpens the dull wits of the barbarian. The glory dwindles and persists. The overtly historical poems illustrate this great theme in a manner which certain Plutarchian moments in Shakespeare—Casca’s deadpan account of a crown refused—read like early attempts to get right. Cavafy himself draws on Plutarch, Herodotus, Gibbon, and a host of “Byzantine historians” whom he praised for writing “a kind of history that had never been written before. They wrote history dramatically.” So did he.
Unexpected strands interconnect these historical pieces. A Syrian “Craftsman of Wine Bowls,” at work fifteen years after Antiochus the Great’s defeat at Magnesia in 190 BC, is overheard while decorating a silver bowl with the remembered figure of a friend killed in that battle. “The Battle of Magnesia” itself reminds Philip of Macedonia of his own defeat by the Romans; with scant pity to waste on Antiochus, he calls for roses, music, lights. We see elsewhere (“To Antiochos Epiphanis”) a grandson of the defeated king greeting with prudent silence, thirty years later, his favorite’s plea for the liberation of Macedonia—that would be worth, to the boy, “the coral Pan…the gardens of Tyre / and everything else you’ve given me.” (The issue is still alive in our time.) This very favorite, or another, becomes the ostensible subject of some erotic verses by “Temethos, Antiochian, AD 400”—a flashback from far in the future, the date referring us to poems about the last stages of Hellenism in the Middle East.
In one of these (“Theatre of Sidon”) the speaker confesses: “I sometimes write highly audacious verses in Greek / and these I circulate—surreptitiously,” much as Cavafy did his own, neither wanting to offend the prevailing Christian morality. Back to Antiochus the Great’s lineage, a second grandson (“Of Dimitrios Sotir, 162-50 BC”) next occupies the Syrian throne with Roman recognition. This idealistic young king was raised as a hostage in Rome. At last where he belongs, he cannot recognize the Syria of his dreams in exile. It has become “the land of Valas and Herakleidis.” Valas is the adventurer who, bribed by a Ptolemy whom Dimitrios Sotir once tried to help (“The Displeasure of Selefkidis”), is presently to overcome Dimitrios. In “The Favor of Alexander Valas,” its fatuous object will be found exulting, briefly we may assume, “Antioch is all mine.” And the Satrap Herakleidis is none other than he who, years earlier as Antiochus Epiphanis’s treasurer, commissions a wine bowl from the melancholy but uncomplaining silversmith.
Thus, fixed to earth at these several points (I have omitted a few), the tent of an entire lost world can be felt to swell and ripple in the air above them. It is not Cavafy’s concern to occupy—by spelling out every connection, or cramming with detail—this historical, no, this emotional space. He does something more skillful yet by suggesting it, by manipulating it.
As a reader of Cavafy Mr. Liddell—while providing helpful glosses and fine insights (he introduces “The God Abandons Antony” as a poem which “seems to take farewell of symbolism”)—prefers to let the work speak for itself. But not always. I can’t help wishing that he had been able, in a single sweeping period, to express his disagreement with the novelist and critic Stratis Tsirkas—whose continuing studies of Cavafy can at present be appraised only by readers of Greek—instead of paraphrasing his interpretations, nine times out of ten for the sole purpose of disputing them. Thus Tsirkas’s reading of the short poem “Thermopylae” (1901) comes off as preposterously topical. Leonidas and the traitor Ephialtes are thinly overlaid upon figures in Alexandria’s Greek community in the 1880s, the Persians are the British, etc. Liddell’s “ethical” reading raises problems he is the first to admit.
Neither interpretation is particularly absorbing; nor for that matter is the poem itself, except where one feels it come to life through the suggestive interplay of its three proper nouns. Ephialtes (one of those names like Quisling?) happens to mean nightmare. “$$$—the Medes—can be heard as a dream-pun allusion to words like $$$ (not, don’t), $$$ (zero), $$$ (nihilist), etc. At this level “Thermopylae” has little to do with either history or ethics, but implies that a subconscious horror is forever about to betray the self’s “warm gates” to a host of negative powers, and that to be truthful or “generous in small ways” is honorable but vain in the face of the recurrent onslaught. Here is Cavafy (under “Table Talk” in Liddell’s appendix): “We must study our language since we don’t know it. What hidden treasures it contains, what treasures! Our thought ought to be how we are to enrich it, how to bring to light what it has hidden in it.”
Liddell and Tsirkas go on to read “the next poem in the canon,” “Che Fece…il Gran Rifiuto” (1899), according to their lights. The latter has it alluding to the career of an Alexandrian Patriarch fifteen years earlier (Dante’s phrase, used as title, refers to Pope Celestine V). The former calls it “a generalized reflection with no bearing on any refusal that we know of in Cavafy’s own life…an unsuccessful work.” Uncharacteristic perhaps, in its bald lack of particulars:
For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
drags him down all his life.
In fact we know—and know now more vividly than before, thanks to Mr. Liddell—of many refusals in Cavafy’s life: the refusal to be a husband and father, an enterprising merchant, a popular poet, or to frequent exclusively the world of “the Salvago balls.” This little poem remains a schoolboy exercise unless it is taken personally. (Also, it is an early poem. The quarrel with Tsirkas dies down when Liddell comes to the mature work, whose possible meanings no longer roam freely outside the poem, but are controlled, as it were, from within.)
In fact, as Marguerite Yourcenar says, all the historical poems are intimate, just as all the intimate poems are historical—hence, in the latter, the dwelling upon dates and the exact number of years gone by. We do not know whom any given love poem is for; there is no Agostinelli in Cavafy’s life. Nor will most readers know the fuller context of the historical pieces. But we know what happens in history, to ideas and nations. And we know what happens when a loved one is struck down in youth, or disfigured by age, or leaves us for somebody else, or for Australia. To Cavafy’s moments of truth are appended consequences so implicit in the nature of things as hardly having to be uttered. One of his notes on Ruskin hints at the turn of mind that made for such far-reaching yet discreet authority:
When we say “Time” we mean ourselves. Most abstractions are simply our pseudonyms. It is superfluous to say “Time is scytheless and toothless.” We know it. We are time.
A reader without Greek will finally, or first of all, respond to the earmark of nearly every Cavafy poem. Like all experienced raconteurs he knows how to repeat himself. Key words—often whole lines—get said over, reiteration serving, since no detail’s value can be assured until it “comes to rest in this poetry,” to woo it back, fix it more lastingly in the mind. The over-all brevity and compression lend relief to these touches, by turns poignant, wry, haunted. Cavafy’s economies are lavish. The old gentleman living on a shoestring still tips well for the good services of the telling phrase.
Messrs. Keeley and Sherrard print the Greek en face (warning: but not in the paperback edition) and have given it a thoroughly serviceable English version, the best we are likely to see for some time. A few examples may indicate their success and limitations.
In a room—empty, small, four walls only,
covered with green cloth—
a beautiful chandelier burns, all fire;
and each of its flames kindles
a sensual fever, a lascivious urge.
In the small room, radiantly lit
by the chandelier’s hot fire,
no ordinary light breaks out.
Not for timid bodies
the lust of this heat.
The original (1895) is in two rhymed stanzas. (Notes at the back supply Cavafy’s metrical and rhyme schemes whenever relevant. This is most helpful, as far as it goes, though the reader faced with “ababcdbbef aghbibibjb agklmbbc” might feel that he is studying nothing so much as the transliteration of an Arabic curse.) “Chandelier,” however, is a symbolist poem. In a space scaled to the small room, it presents its glowing image—presents it twice, on the replay spelling out more clearly the erotic message. One cannot greatly mourn the loss of some rather ordinary music. In fact, the translators, by reducing 133 syllables in Greek to 78 in English, actually enhance the poem’s dramatic brevity. Many unrhymed, loosely metered poems are equally well served by this approach.
But the mature Cavafy writes a subtle, flexible Greek whose elements—classic, purist, regional, demotic—come together, as Kimon Friar observes, in “an artifice suited to and made integral by his temperament.” A comparison to the shifts of manner in a Pound canto would be to the point if, in Cavafy, the unity of temperament weren’t everything. Still, this English often reads more dryly and simply than it needs to. The crucial literary note in “Comes to Rest” (1918)—an erotic memory “the vision of which / has crossed twenty-six years and now / comes to rest within this poetry”—is soft-pedaled. The phrase “$$$ $$$ requires some-thing on the order of “the fires of divine July were lit” or “divine July had brought us to white heat.” Instead we are given “it was a beautiful hot July.” This turns Cavafy into a nicer guy, but misses the point he is making about artifice. No great harm done. Cavafy himself prevents any misunder-standing in a poem written later that year, “Melancholy of Jason Kleander, Poet in Kommagini, AD 595”:
The aging of my body and my beauty
is a wound from a merciless knife.
I’m not resigned to it at all….
Bring your drugs, Art of Poetry—
they do relieve the pain at least for a while.
(I should have thought the third line meant: “I do not bear up under it at all.” Mavrogordato’s version sounds almost chipper: “I have no long-suffering of any sort.”)
In other poems, the formal effects, unlike those of “Chandelier,” are indispensable to meaning. The famous “Walls,” for instance, with its homophonic rhymes. “They,” other people, unnoticed by him, have immured the poet—so he says. Yet these rhymes, stifling, narcissistic, arrogantly accomplished, tell the inside story—the walls are of his own making—without which the poem is an exercise in self-pity. An effect unrenderable in. English? Cavafy’s brother John (see a group of his English versions introduced by Keeley, St. Andrews Review, Fall-Winter 1974) does nobly by the homophonic rhymes in “For the Shop,” but at the cost of clarity and pace.
Formality in the later work appears, so to speak, informally. When it does, it is usually of one fabric with the meaning. Here is the Keeley-Sherrard “Days of 1909, ‘10, and ‘11”:
He was the son of a misused, poverty-stricken sailor
(from an island in the Aegean Sea).
He worked for an ironmonger: his clothes shabby,
his workshoes miserably torn,
his hands filthy with rust and oil.
In the evenings, after the shop closed,
if there was something he longed for especially,
a more or less expensive tie,
a tie for Sunday,
or if he saw and coveted
a beautiful blue shirt in some store window,
he’d sell his body for a half-crown or two.
I ask myself if the great Alex- andria
of ancient times could boast of a boy
more exquisite, more perfect—thoroughly neglected though he was:
that is, we don’t have a statue or painting of him;
thrust into that poor ironmonger’s shop,
overworked, harassed, given to cheap debauchery,
he was soon used up.
By consulting the notes (“Loosely rhymed abcde ffffcfc gfhdhdf“) we notice rum doings in the second stanza. The effect is in fact magical. One foot, then two, are subtracted from the opening’s basic seven-foot line. Suddenly, where no rhymes had been come four consecutive ones, each an end-stopped ee. (This is now the most common sound in Greek, representable on the page by no fewer than six vowels and diphthongs each of which had its own value in classical times.) Line five moves past another stressed ee (the word “saw”) to the poem’s most passionate verb ($$$, “coveted”) which two lines later will rhyme with “sell.” The seven-foot line, as central to Greek prosody as the pentameter to ours, returns, closing this stanza and governing the next. The barrel-organ interlude is over, though two further ee rhymes echo it in the final stanza. The Greek attains the ease and freshness of a jingle learned in childhood:
Cavafy’s aim here can only have been to imitate, through that poorest, commonest of rhyme sounds, the quality of pleasure available to the young man with his pitiful needs and by-the-numbers behavior. To meet the same rhyme further on, as Cavafy’s “own” voice is winding up the story, sheds light both on his lasting compassion, at its best without pity, and on the means whereby he remade it into poetry.
Of course a rhymed English version is possible:
But when the shop closed down at night,
if there was something he’d delight
in having, a necktie somewhat dear,
tie that on Sundays he might wear,
or in some showcase saw and loved on sight
a lovely shirt of deepest blue,
he’d sell his body for a dollar or two.
As dusk fell, and the shop closed, had there been
something he longed for, some- thing seen—
a Sunday tie, a tie beyond his means,
or shirt of beautiful dark blue
coveted in this or that vitrine—
he’d go and sell his body for a dollar or two.
These, alas, are barely adequate (the first is Kimon Friar’s, the second my own). “This or that vitrine” smacks of fussiness; “delight” and “loved on sight,” of gush. Mainly one misses Cavafy’s polysyllabic rhyme words, and their expert division among different parts of speech, which keep the passage from sounding like baby-talk.
The last poem in the “Days” series, “Days of 1908,” begins with twentyfour lines of which nineteen end with assorted masculine rhymes. This time the protagonist is “reasonably educated,” feels entitled to better employment than he has yet found. So he gambles, wins, loses, borrows—dressed always in the same wretched “cinnamon-brown suit.” The poem ends with an idealized view of him at the beach on summer mornings. The final seven lines, where the boy sheds, along with his clothes, his circumstances and responsibilities, are unrhymed, with fluid, feminine endings. We breathe something of the unconstricted freshness here evoked.
If nothing else, the feminine and masculine endings could have been managed in English without great trouble. A nagging voice in me wants to say that these sound effects—like the more complex ones in “Days of 1909, ‘10, and ‘11”—are such a poem’s secret power, and that a translation which fails to suggest them is hardly worth making. Having said so, I retract the statement at once. It is too grumpy and too unfair to Messrs. Keeley and Sherrard who, whether or not they have the skill, certainly do not have the time, the lifetime they would need to achieve the—in any case—impossible. On their own terms they have done admirably. Readers who once preferred to existing English versions Marguerite Yourcenar’s elegant French prose ones must now admit that these have been surpassed, with respect at least to accuracy and completeness.
Singlehanded in our century, Cavafy showed the Greek poets who followed him what could be done with their language. In that quarter, he has had the greatest conceivable influence. Yet these later men, with their often superior lyric or epic gifts, their reverence for Earth, their virtuoso talent for metaphor, next to him strike me as loud and provincial (Kazantzakis) or curiously featureless (Seferis and Elytis), through overlong immersion in the new international waters of Eliot, Perse, the surrealists. They have, of course, claimed huge territories for Greek letters; but how gladly, having surveyed those shifting contours, one re-enters the relative security of Cavafy’s shabby flat with its view of the street and of the ages. I should add that my reading in (and of) Greek is insufficient to justify this kind of pronouncement.
A few years ago, as the Brindisi-Patras ferry was docking, a young Belgian needing a ride to Athens asked if there was room for him in the car. En route he said that he had left Brussels weeks earlier with fifty francs in his pocket, of which nearly half remained. I praised his economy. Ah, he said, he made friends easily; kept up old friendships, too. Would he be staying, then, with friends in Athens? Just so. Night had fallen, we drove on, now silent, now talking a bit. He may have suspected some wraith of education behind my words, for presently he asked if I knew the Greek poet Cavafy. When I said yes, he lit up: “Well, it’s with him that I shall be staying these next days in Athens.”
The lively interest I expressed was rewarded by a description of a man in late middle age, charming, clever, fluent in French, and living on a street quite near to where I stayed. Who knows?—if I had been charming and clever I might have played my cards so as to drink coffee later that week with my companion and his host. Instead—it had been a long day—I cut things short by disclosing that the real Cavafy had died of throat cancer on his seventieth birthday, in 1933, having never, aside from brief visits, lived in Greece at all. The Belgian took it badly. He’d seen books, been shown poems done into French, English, Italian, plus hundreds of clippings and critical articles. “At home my friends all know his name. They say: Cavafy, c’est un monument!” “How right they are,” I agreed sadly; “a monument is all he is, now.”
I would have liked to drive my passenger to this Mr. Cavafy’s door, but he asked to be dropped downtown, near a telephone. Home at last, tired as I was, I went straight to the directory—where no Cavafy is listed. But it remains a comfort to think that in my very neighborhood a civilized old humbug is still misrepresenting himself to seasonal waves of goodlooking if imperfectly educated visitors. Whoever he is, I take off my hat to him, as well as to the marvelous poet he is evidently translating, for once not into some other language, but boldly into life itself.