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As Good as Great Poetry Gets’

As time passed, he was drawn more and more to recent and contemporary currents in Continental literature. The Parnassian movement of the 1860s and 1870s, in particular, with its eager response to Théophile Gautier’s call for an “Art for Art’s sake,” its insistence on elevating polished form over earnest subjective, social, and political content, and particularly its invitation to a return to the milieus and models of the antique Mediterranean past, had special appeal. That so many of Cavafy’s poems from this period are sonnets or variations on the sonnet form is a testament to the influence of the Parnassians, who prized the form for its rigorous technical requirements.

From the Parnassians it was but a short step to Baudelaire, a Greek translation of whose “Correspondences” constitutes part of one 1892 poem; and, ultimately, to Symbolism. It is not hard to see the allure that Baudelaire’s elevation of the poet as a member of an elite—a gifted seer whose special perceptions were denied to the common mass—had for the young poet, in whom a rarefied taste for the past, as well as a necessarily secret taste for specialized erotic pleasures, coexisted. Lines from the second half of “Correspondences According to Baudelaire” suggest how thoroughly the young Alexandrian had absorbed the lessons of the pioneering French modernist:

Do not believe only what you see.

The vision of poets is sharper still.

To them, Nature is a familiar garden.

In a shadowed paradise, those other

people grope along the cruel road….

With Cavafy, the inevitably self- justifying preoccupation with the notion of an artistic elite (“Cavafy’s attitude toward the poetic vocation is an aristocratic one,” wrote Auden, perhaps a trifle indulgently)—an attitude irresistible, as we might imagine, to a tormented closeted gay man—was paralleled by a lifelong fascination with figures gifted with second sight, extrasensory perception, and telepathic knowledge. It found its ideal historical correlative in the first century AD magus and sage Apollonius of Tyana, about whom Cavafy published three poems; as the corpus of poems left unfinished at the time of the poet’s death makes clear, he was working on the draft of another toward the end of his life.3

By the end of the 1890s he was experiencing a profound intellectual and artistic crisis precipitated by his engagement not with other poets, but with two historians. A series of reading notes on Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, made between 1893 and 1899, indicates a serious ongoing engagement with the great Enlightenment historian. The exasperated rejection of Gibbon’s disdainful view of Byzantium and Christianity that we find in those notes betrays the strong influence exerted by the contemporary Greek historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, whose History of the Greek Nation expounded a Romantic nationalist vision of a coherent Greek identity continuing unbroken from ancient to Byzantine to modern times. It was Cavafy’s reading in these two historians that led him to reject his earlier, rather facile use of history as merely the vehicle for bejeweled verses in the Parnassian mode on “Ancient Days” (one of the thematic headings into which he’d group his poems: others were “The Beginnings of Christianity,” “Passions,” and “Prisons”), and inspired him to try to combine history and poetry in a more intellectually and aesthetically serious way.

This intellectual crisis coincided with a devastating series of deaths of friends and family members throughout the same decade (his two closest friends, three of his six brothers, an uncle, his mother, and his maternal grandfather would all die between 1886 and 1902) and with what he obscurely referred to as a “crisis of lasciviousness,” which may or may not have had something to do with his intense attraction to a young playwright whom he met during a trip to Athens at the turn of the century.

Together, these cerebral, emotional, and erotic upheavals culminated in a dramatic reappraisal of his life’s work thus far: the “Philosophical Scrutiny” of 1902–1903, to which the poet, as he turned forty, ruthlessly subjected all of his poems written up to that point, both unpublished and published. (Hence the later appellation “Repudiated” for a group of poems he’d already published by that time and subsequently rejected.)

Cavafy himself dated his mature period to the year 1911—not coincidentally, the year in which he published “Dangerous,” the first of his poems that situated homoerotic content in an ancient setting. Nor is it a coincidence that the subject of this poem is a Syrian student living in Alexandria during the uneasy double reign of the sons of Constantine the Great, Constans and Constantius, in the fourth century AD, at the very moment when the Roman Empire was shifting from paganism to Christianity. As if profiting from that uncertain moment, and reflecting it as well, the young man feels emboldened to give bold voice to illicit urges:

Strengthened by contemplation and study,

I will not fear my passions like a coward.

My body I will give to pleasures,

to diversions that I’ve dreamed of,

to the most daring erotic desires,

to the lustful impulses of my blood, without

any fear at all….

Both the “shady” character and the confusing fourth-century setting (to which he would return in his late masterwork “Myres: Alexandria in 340 A.D.”—see page 59—the longest poem he ever published) are typical of what George Seferis described as the characteristic Cavafian milieu: “the margins of places, men, epochs…where there are many amalgams, fluctuations, transformations, transgressions.” As he neared the age of fifty, Cavafy had found, at last, a way to write, without shame, about his desire—a way that suggestively conflated the various “margins” to which Cavafy had always been drawn: erotic, geographical, temporal.

The painfully achieved reconciliation of Gibbon’s eighteenth-century, Enlightenment view of his- tory and Paparrigopoulos’s nineteenth-century, Romantic national feeling, coupled with a startlingly prescient twentieth-century willingness to write frankly about homosexual experience, made possible the “unique tone of voice,” as the admiring Auden described it, that is the unmistakable and inimitable hallmark of Cavafy’s work. Ironic yet never cruel, unsurprised by human frailty, including his own (“Cavafy appreciates cowardice also,” Forster wrote, “and likes the little men who can’t be consistent or maintain their ideals”), yet infinitely forgiving of it, that tone takes its darker notes from the historian’s shrewd appreciation for the ironies of human action (which inevitably result, as did the life-altering business misfortunes of his father and uncles, from imperfect knowledge, bad timing, missed opportunities, or simply bad luck); yet at the same time is richly colored by a profound sympathy for human striving in the face of impossible obstacles. (Which could be the armies of Octavian or taboos against forbidden desires.) And it is inflected, too, by the connoisseur’s unsparing and unsentimental grasp of both the pleasures and the pain to which desire makes us vulnerable.

That appreciation, that sympathy, that understanding are, of course, made possible only by Time—the medium that makes History possible, too. For many readers, even sophisticated ones, Cavafy is a poet who wrote essentially two kinds of poems: daringly exposed verses about desire whose frank treatment of homoerotic themes put them decades ahead of their time, and make them gratifyingly accessible; and rather abstruse historical poems, filled with obscure references to little-known and confusingly homonymous Hellenistic or Byzantine monarchs, and set in epochs one was never held responsible for learning and places that fringed the shadowier margins of the Mediterranean map.

But to divide the poet’s work in this way is to make a very serious mistake: Cavafy’s one great subject, the element that unites virtually all of his work, is time. His poetry returns obsessively to a question that is, essentially, a historian’s question: how the passage of time affects our understanding of events—whether the time in question is the millennia that have elapsed since 31 BC, when the Hellenophile Marc Antony’s dreams of an Eastern Empire were pulverized by Rome (the subject of seven poems) or the mere years that, in the poem “Since Nine—,” have passed since those long-ago nights that the narrator spent in bustling cafés and crowded city streets: a space of time that has since been filled with the deaths of loved ones whose value he only now appreciates, sitting alone in a room without bothering to light the lamp. What matters to Cavafy, and what so often gives his work both its profound sympathy and rich irony, is the understanding, which as he knew so well comes too late to too many, that however fervently we may act in the dramas of our lives—emperors, lovers, magicians, scholars, Christians, catamites, stylites, pagans, artists, saints, poets—only time reveals whether the play is a tragedy or a comedy.

The references to long-vanished eras, places, and figures that we so often find in Cavafy’s poetry, and which indeed are unfamiliar even to most scholars of classical antiquity, are, for this reason, never to be mistaken for mere exercises in abstruse pedantry. Or, indeed, for abstruseness at all. A poem that casually invokes, say, the autumnal thoughts of the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus in the year 1180 functions quite differently from the way in which invocations of arcane material can function in (to take the well-known example of a contemporary) The Waste Land of T.S. Eliot—where the self-consciously rarefied quality of the numerous allusions is part of the texture of the poem, part of its Modernist project.

Cavafy, by contrast, may be said simply to have inhabited his various pasts so fully that they are all equally present to him. Not for nothing are a striking number of his poems about nocturnal apparitions of those who have vanished into history. In “Caesarion,” for instance, a poem written in 1914 and published in 1918—the intervening years, the years of the Great War, saw the publication of a number of poems on alluring dead youths—the beautiful (as he imagines) teenage son of Caesar and Cleopatra materializes one night in the poet’s apartment:

Ah, there: you came with your indefinite

charm…


And I imagined you so fully

that yesterday, late at night, when the lamp

went out—I deliberately let it go out—

I dared to think you came into my room,

it seemed to me you stood before me…

Such apparitions do not always belong to the distant past. In “Since Nine—,” published in 1918 and written the year before, an “apparition” of the poet’s own “youthful body” suddenly materializes in front of him one evening as he sits alone in a darkened room; in an unfinished poem of the same period, “It Must Have Been the Spirits,” the poet’s own soul, together with the image of a louche youth he’d encountered years ago in Marseille, takes form before his eyes, replacing a décor that is itself a suggestive mélange of past and present (a commonplace settee, a piece of archaic Greek statuary). Although in the latter poem the narrator attributes his supernatural vision to the excess of wine he’d drunk the previous night—hence the title—such apparitions are, therefore, hardly anomalous in his creative life, and symbolize a crucial theme of the entire body of work: the presence of the past in our own present.

To Cavafy, figures such as that of the dead princeling and the long-forgotten French boy all inhabit the same era—the vastly arcing past that his own imagination inhabited so fully—and were therefore as alive and present to him as the whores who lived in the brothel below his apartment on the Rue Lepsius. (“Where could I better live?” he once remarked, in the mondain tone we recognize from his verse. “Under me is a house of ill repute, which caters to the needs of the flesh. Over there is the church, where sins are forgiven. And beyond is the hospital, where we die.”) It is the responsibility of the reader to inhabit that past as fully as possible, too, if only during the brief space during which he or she explores these poems. Otherwise, the meaning of many of these poems will be obscure, if not opaque. The reader who, put off by that opacity, seeks out the contemporary poems while skipping over the historical poems is missing the point of Cavafy’s work—is, like so many of his characters, tragically mistaking the clouded part for the clear and brilliant whole.

  1. 3

    The definitive Greek edition of the Unfinished Poems was published by the Italian scholar Renata Lavagnini in 1994. My translations, with commentary, of those works and of the Collected Poems are forthcoming from Knopf in March 2009.

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