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On Cavafy’s Side

Cavafy’s Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress

by Edmund Keeley
Harvard University Press, 196 pp., $11.50


Constantine Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863, and died there seventy years later of throat cancer. The uneventfulness of his life would have made the strictest of New Critics happy. Cavafy was the ninth child of a well-to-do mercantile family, whose prosperity went into rapid decline with the death of his father. At the age of nine the future poet went to England, where Cavafy and Sons had its branches, and he returned to Alexandria at sixteen. He was brought up in the Greek Orthodox religion. For a while he attended the Hermes Lyceum, a business school in Alexandria, and some sources tell us that while there he was more interested in classical and historical studies than in the art of commerce. But this may be merely a cliché in the biography of a poet.

In 1882, when Cavafy was nineteen, an anti-European outbreak took place in Alexandria which caused a great deal of bloodshed (at least according to that century’s standards), and the British retaliated with a naval bombardment of the city. Since Cavafy and his mother had left for Constantinople not long before, he missed his chance to witness perhaps the only historic event to take place in Alexandria during his lifetime. He spent three subsequent years in Constantinople—important years for his development. It was in Constantinople that the historical diary, which he had been keeping for several years, stopped—at the entry marked “Alexander.” Here also he allegedly had his first homosexual experience. At twenty-eight Cavafy got his first job, as a temporary clerk at the Department of Irrigation in the Ministry of Public Works. This provisional position turned out to be fairly permanent: he held it for the next thirty years, occasionally making some extra money as a broker on the Alexandrian Stock Exchange.

Cavafy knew ancient and modern Greek, Latin, Arabic, French; he read Dante in Italian and he wrote his first poems in English. But if there were any literary influences—and in the book under review Edmund Keeley sees some in the English Romantics—they ought to be confined to that stage of Cavafy’s poetic development which the poet himself dismissed from the “canon” of his work, as Keeley defines it. As for the later period, Cavafy’s treatment of what were known during Hellenic times as mime-jambs (or simply “mime”) and his use of the epitaph are so much his own that Keeley is correct in sparing us the haze of the Palatine Anthology.

The uneventfulness of Cavafy’s life extends to his never having published a book of his poems. He lived in Alexandria, wrote poems (occasionally printing them in feuilles volantes, as pamphlets or broadsheets in a severely limited edition), talked in cafés to local or visiting literati, played cards, bet on horses, visited homosexual brothels, and sometimes attended church.

I believe that there are at least five editions of Cavafy’s poetry in English. The most successful renderings are those by Rae Dalven1 and Messrs. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.2 The hard-cover version of the latter is bilingual. Since there is little or no cooperation in the world of translation, translators sometimes duplicate others’ efforts without knowing it. But a reader may benefit from such duplication and, in a way, the poet may benefit too. In this case, at least, he does, although there is a great deal of similarity between the two books in the goal they set themselves of straightforward rendering. Judged by this goal, Keeley and Sherrard’s versions are certainly superior. It is lucky though that less than half of Cavafy’s work is rhymed, and mostly his early poems.

Every poet loses in translation, and Cavafy is not an exception. What is exceptional is that he also gains. He gains not only because he is a fairly didactic poet, but also because, starting as early as 1900-1910, he began to strip his poems of all poetic paraphernalia—rich imagery, similes, metric flamboyance, and, as already mentioned, rhymes. This is the economy of maturity, and Cavafy resorts to deliberately “poor” means, to using words in their primary meanings as a further move toward economy. Thus he calls emeralds “green” and describes bodies as being “young and beautiful.” This technique comes out of Cavafy’s realization that language is not a tool of cognition but one of assimilation, that the human being is a natural bourgeois and uses language for the same ends as he uses housing or clothing. Poetry seems to be the only weapon able to beat language, using language’s own means.

Cavafy’s use of “poor” adjectives creates the unexpected effect of establishing a certain mental tautology, which loosens the reader’s imagination, whereas more elaborate images or similes would capture that imagination or confine it. For these reasons a translation of Cavafy is almost the next logical step in the direction the poet was moving—a step which Cavafy himself could have wished to take.

Perhaps he didn’t need to take it: his handling of metaphor alone was sufficient for him to have stopped where he did or even earlier. Cavafy did a very simple thing. There are two elements which usually constitute a metaphor: the object of description (the “tenor,” as I.A. Richards called it), and the object to which the first is imagistically, or simply grammatically, allied (the “vehicle”). The implication which the second part usually contains provides the writer with the possibility of virtually endless development. This is the way a poem works. What Cavafy did, almost from the very beginning of his career as a poet, was to jump straight to the second part: for the rest of that career he developed and elaborated upon its implicit notions without bothering to return to the first part, assumed as self-evident. The “vehicle” was Alexandria; the “tenor” was life.


Cavafy’s Alexandria is subtitled “Study of a Myth in Progress.” Although the phrase “myth in progress” was coined by George Seferis, “study of a metaphor in progress” would do just as well. Myth is essentially an attribute of the pre-Hellenic period, and the word “myth” seems an unhappy choice if we take into consideration Cavafy’s own view of all the hackneyed approaches to Greek themes—myth- and hero-making, nationalistic fervor, etc.—taken by numerous men of letters, Cavafy’s compatriots as well as foreigners.

Cavafy’s Alexandria is not exactly Yoknapatawpha County, nor is it Tilbury Town or Spoon River. It is, first of all, a squalid and desolate place in that stage of decline when the routine character of decay weakens the very sentiment of regret. In a way, the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 did more to dim Alexandria’s luster than had Roman domination, the emergence of Christianity, and the Arab conquest together; most of the shipping, the main source of Alexandria’s commercial existence, was shunted to Port Said. Cavafy could view this as a distant echo of the time, eighteen centuries earlier, when the last ships of Cleopatra escaped by the same route after losing the battle of Actium.

He called himself a historical poet, and Keeley’s book, in its turn, represents some sort of archaeological undertaking. We should keep in mind, however, that the word “history” is equally applicable to the endeavors of nations and to private lives. In both cases it consists of memory, record, and interpretation. Cavafy’s Alexandria is a kind of upward-reaching archaeology because Keeley is dealing with the layers of an imagined city; he proceeds with the greatest care, knowing that such layers are apt to be intermingled. Keeley distinguishes clearly at least five of them: the literal city, the metaphoric city, the sensual city, mythical Alexandria, and the world of Hellenism. He finally draws a chart indicating into which category each poem falls. This book is as marvelous a guide to the imagined Alexandria as E.M. Forster’s is to the real one. (Forster’s book was dedicated to Cavafy, and Forster was the first to introduce Cavafy to the English reader.)

Keeley’s findings are helpful, so is his method; and if one disagrees with some of his conclusions, this is because the phenomenon is, and was, still larger than his findings can suggest. Comprehension of its size, however, rests on Keeley’s fine performance as a translator of Cavafy’s work. If Keeley doesn’t say certain things in this book, it is largely because he has done them in translation.

One of the main characteristics of historical writing—and especially of classical history—is, inevitably, stylistic ambiguity resulting either in an abundance of contradictory evidence or in firm contradictory evaluations of that evidence. Herodotus and Thucydides themselves sometimes sound like latterday paradoxicalists. In other words, ambiguity is an inevitable by-product of the struggle for objectivity in which, since the Romantics, every more or less serious poet has been involved. We know already that Cavafy was moving in this direction; we know also his affection for history.

By the turn of the century Cavafy had acquired that objective, although properly ambiguous, dispassionate tone that he was to employ for the next thirty years. His sense of history took hold of him, but first of all, stylistically: it gave him a mask. The effect of genuineness in his subsequent lyrical poetry is, in fact, a convention; in the hands of Cavafy convention and even cliché become as loaded as his “poor” adjectives.

It is always unpleasant to draw boundaries when you are dealing with a poet, but Keeley’s archaeology requires it. Keeley introduces us to Cavafy at about the time that the poet found his voice and his theme. By then Cavafy was already over forty and had made up his mind about many things, especially about the literal city of Alexandria, where he had decided to stay. Keeley is very persuasive about the difficulty of this decision for Cavafy. With the exception of six or seven unrelated poems, the “literal” city does not come to the surface in Cavafy’s 220-poem canon. What emerges first are the “metaphoric” and mythical cities. This only proves Keeley’s point, because Utopian thought, even when, as in Cavafy’s case, it turns toward the past, usually implies the unbearable character of the present. The more squalid and desolate the place, the stronger one’s desire becomes to enliven it. What prevents us from saying that there was something extremely Greek about Cavafy’s decision to remain in Alexandria (as if he had chosen to go along with Fate, which had put him there, to go along with Parkos) is Cavafy’s own distaste for mythologizing; also, perhaps, the realization on the reader’s part that every choice is essentially a flight from freedom.

Another possible explanation for Cavafy’s decision to stay is that he did not like himself enough to think that he deserved better. Whatever his reason, his imagined Alexandria exists as vividly as the literal city. Art is an alternate form of existence, though the emphasis in this statement falls on the word “existence,” the creative process being neither an escape from reality nor a sublimation of it. At any rate, Cavafy’s was not a case of sublimation, and his treatment of the entire sensual city in his work is proof of that.

Cavafy was a homosexual, and his frank treatment of this theme was advanced not only by the standards of his time, as Keeley suggests, but by present standards as well. Relating his thought to attitudes traditionally found in the eastern Mediterranean is of little or no help; the difference between the Hellenic world and the actual society in which the poet lived was too great. If the moral climate of the actual city suggested techniques of camouflage, recollections of Ptolemaic grandeur should have required some sort of boastful exaggeration. Neither strategy was acceptable to Cavafy because he was, first and foremost, a poet of contemplation and because both attitudes are more or less equally incompatible with the very sentiment of love.

Ninety percent of the best lyric poetry is written post-coitum, as was Cavafy’s. Whatever the subject of his poems, they are always written in retrospect. Homosexuality as such enforces self-analysis more than heterosexuality does. I believe that the gay concept of sin is much more elaborate than the straight concept: straight people are, to say the least, provided with the possibility of instant redemption through marriage or other forms of socially acceptable constancy. Homosexual psychology, like the psychology of any minority, is overtly one of nuance and ambivalence: it capitalizes on one’s vulnerability to the extent of producing a mental U-turn after which the offensive can be launched. In a way, homosexuality is a form of sensual maximalism which absorbs and consumes both the rational and the emotional faculties of a person so completely that T.S. Eliot’s old friend, “felt thought,” is likely to be the result. The homosexual’s notion of life might, in the end, have more facets than that of his heterosexual counterpart. Such a notion, theoretically speaking, provides one with the ideal motive for writing poetry, though in Cavafy’s case this motive is no more than a pretext.

What matters in art are not one’s sexual affiliations, of course, but what is made of them. Only a superficial or partisan critic would label Cavafy’s poems simply “homosexual,” or reduce them to examples of his “hedonistic bias.” Cavafy’s love poems were undertaken in the same spirit as his historical poems. Because of his retrospective nature, one even gets the feeling that the “pleasures”—one of the words Cavafy uses most frequently to refer to the sexual encounters he is recalling—were “poor” almost in the same way that the literal Alexandria, as Keeley describes it, was a poor leftover of something grandiose. The protagonist of these lyric poems is a solitary, aging person who despises his own features, which have been disfigured by that very Time which has altered so many other things that were central to his existence.

The only instrument that a human being has at his disposal for coping with time is memory, and it is his unique, sensual historical memory that makes Cavafy so distinctive. The mechanics of love imply some sort of bridge between the sensual and the spiritual, sometimes to the point of deification; the notion of an afterlife is implicit not only in our couplings, but also in our separations. Paradoxically enough, Cavafy’s poems, in dealing with that Hellenic “special love,” and touching en passant upon conventional broodings and longings, are attempts—or rather recognized failures—to resurrect once-loved shadows. Or: photographs.

Criticism of Cavafy tends to domesticate his perspective, taking his hopelessness for detachment, his absurdity for irony. Cavafy’s love poetry is not “tragic” but terrifying, for while tragedy deals with the fait accompli, terror is the product of the imagination (no matter where it is directed, toward the future or toward the past). His sense of loss is much more acute than his sense of gain simply because separation is a more lasting experience than being together. It almost looks as though Cavafy was more sensual on paper than in reality, where guilt and inhibitions alone provide strong restraints. Poems like “Before Time Altered Them” or “Hidden Things” represent a complete reversal of Susan Sontag’s formula, “Life is a movie; death is a photograph.” To put it another way, Cavafy’s hedonistic bias, if such it is, is biased itself by his historical sense, since history, among other things, implies irreversibility. Alternatively, if Cavafy’s historical poems had not been hedonistically slanted, they would have turned into mere anecdotes.

One of the best examples of the way this dual technique works is the poem (reprinted here) about the fifteen-year-old Kaisarion, Cleopatra’s son, nominally the last king of the Ptolemaic line, who was executed by the Romans in “conquered Alexandria” by the order of the emperor Octavian. After finding Kaisarion’s name in some history book one evening, the narrator plunges into fantasies of this young boy and “fashions him freely” in his mind, “so completely” that, by the end of the poem, when Kaisarion is put to death, we perceive his execution almost as a rape. And then the words “conquered Alexandria” acquire an extra dimension: the torturing recognition of personal loss.

Not so much by combining as by equating sensuality and history, Cavafy tells his readers (and himself) the classic Greek story of Eros, ruler of the world. In Cavafy’s mouth it sounds convincing, all the more so because his historical poems are preoccupied with the decline of the Hellenic world, the situation which he, as an individual, reflects in miniature or mirrors. As if unable to be precise in his handling of the miniature, Cavafy builds us a large-scale model of Alexandria and the adjacent Hellenic world. It is a fresco, and if it seems fragmentary, this is partly because it reflects its creator, but largely because the Hellenic world at its nadir was fragmented both politically and culturally. With the death of Alexander the Great it began to crumble, and wars, skirmishes, and the like kept tearing it apart for centuries after, the way contradictions tear one’s mind apart. The only force which held these motley, cosmopolitan pieces together was magna lingua Grecae; Cavafy could say the same about his own life. Perhaps the most uninhibited voice we hear in Cavafy’s poetry is the voice of intense fascination he uses when he lists the beauties of the Hellenic way of life—Hedonism, Art, Sophistic philosophy, and “especially our great Greek language.”


It was not the Roman Conquest that brought an end to the Hellenic world; it was the day Rome itself fell to Christianity. The interplay between the pagan and Christian worlds in Cavafy’s poetry is the only one of his themes that is not sufficiently covered in Keeley’s book. It is easy to understand why not, however, since this theme deserves a book to itself. To reduce Cavafy to a homosexual who felt uneasy about Christianity would be simplistic. For that matter, he felt no cozier with paganism. He was perceptive enough to know that he had been born with the mixture of both in his veins—born, too, into this mixture. If he felt the tension, it was not the fault of either one, but of both: his was not a question of split loyalty. Ostensibly, at least, he was a Christian; he always wore a cross, attended church on Good Friday, and received the last rites. Profoundly, too, he was perhaps a Christian: his most vigorous ironies were directed against one of the main vices of Christianity—pious intolerance. But what matters to us as readers, of course, is not Cavafy’s church affiliation, but the way in which he handled the mixture of two religions—and Cavafy’s way was neither Christian nor pagan.

At the end of the pre-Christian era (although people, whether they are warned about the coming Messiah or about the impending holocaust, do not count their time backward) Alexandria was a marketplace of faiths and ideologies, among them Judaism, local Coptic cults, Neoplatonism, and, of course, newly arrived Christianity. Polytheism and monotheism were familiar issues in this city, site of the first real academy in the history of our civilization—Museuon. By juxtaposing one faith with another we certainly take them out of their context, and the context was precisely what mattered to the Alexandrians, until the day came when they were told that what mattered was choosing one of them. They didn’t like doing so, and neither does Cavafy. When Cavafy uses the words “paganism” and “Christianity” we should keep in mind, as he did, that they are conventions, common denominators, and that numerators are what civilization is all about.

In his historical poems Cavafy uses what Keeley calls “common” metaphors, i.e. metaphors based on political symbolism (as in the poems “Darius” or “Waiting for the Barbarians”); and this is another reason why Cavafy almost gains in translation. Politics itself is a kind of meta-language, a mental uniform, and unlike most modern poets, Cavafy is very good at unbuttoning it. The “canon” contains seven poems about Julian the Apostate—quite a few considering the brevity (three years) of Julian’s reign as emperor. There must be some reason for Cavafy’s interest in Julian, and Keeley’s interpretation does not seem adequate. Julian was brought up as a Christian, but when he took the throne he tried to re-establish paganism as the state religion. Although the very idea of a state religion suggests Julian’s Christian streak, he went about the matter in a quite different fashion: he did not persecute the Christians, nor did he try to convert them. He merely deprived Christianity of state support and sent his sages to dispute publicly with Christian priests.

The priests were often losers in these verbal sparring matches, partly because of dogmatic contradictions in the teachings of that time and partly because the priests were usually less prepared for a debate than their opponents, since they simply assumed their Christian dogma to be superior. At any rate, Julian was tolerant of what he called “Galileanism,” whose Trinity he regarded as a backward blend of Greek polytheism and Judaic monotheism. The only thing Julian did which could be viewed as persecution was to demand the return of certain pagan temples seized by Christians during the rule of Julian’s predecessors and to forbid Christian proselytizing in the schools. “Those who vilify the gods should not be allowed to teach youths and interpret the works of Homer, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Thucydides and Herodotus, who worshipped those gods. Let them, in their own Galilean churches, interpret Matthew and Luke.”

Not yet having their own literature and, on the whole, not having much with which to counter Julian’s arguments, the Christians attacked him for the very tolerance with which he treated them, calling him Herod, a carnivorous scarecrow, an arch-liar who, with devilish cunning, does not persecute openly and so deceives the simple-minded. Whatever it was that Julian was really after, Cavafy evidently was interested in the way this Roman emperor handled the problem. Cavafy, it seems, saw Julian as a man who tried to preserve the two religious possibilities, not by making a choice, but by creating links between them that would make the best of both. This is surely a rational attitude for one to take on spiritual issues, but Julian was after all a politician. His attempt was a heroic one, considering both the scope of the problem and its possible outcomes. Risking the charge of idealization, one is tempted to call Julian a great soul obsessed with the recognition that neither paganism nor Christianity is sufficient by itself and that, taken separately, neither can exercise man’s spiritual capacity to the fullest. There are always tormenting leftovers, always the sense of a certain partial vacuum, causing, at best, a sense of sin. The fact is that man’s spiritual restlessness is not satisfied by either philosophy, and there is no doctrine about which, without incurring condemnation, one may speak of as combining both, except, perhaps, stoicism or existentialism (which might be viewed as a form of stoicism sponsored by Christianity).

A sensual and, by implication, a spiritual extremist cannot be satisfied by this solution, but he can resign himself to it. What matters in any resignation, however, is not so much to what as from what one is resigning. It adds greater scope to Cavafy’s poetry to realize that he did not choose between paganism and Christianity but was swinging between them like a pendulum. Sooner or later, though, a pendulum realizes the limitations imposed upon it. Unable to reach beyond its walls, the pendulum nevertheless gets some glimpses of the outer realm and recognizes that it is subservient and that the directions in which it is forced to swing are preordained, that they are governed by Time in (if not for) its progress.

Hence that implacable note of ennui which makes Cavafy’s voice with its hedonistic-stoic tremolo sound so haunting. What makes it even more haunting is our realization that we are on this man’s side, that we recognize his situation, even if it is only in a poem that deals with the assimilation of a pagan into a pious Christian regime. I have in mind the poem “If Actually Dead” about Appolonius of Tyana, the pagan prophet who lived only thirty years later than Christ, was known for miracles, cured people, left no record of his death, and, unlike Christ, could write.

  1. 1

    The Complete Poems of Cavafy (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966).

  2. 2

    C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, edited by George Savidis (Princeton University Press, 1975).

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