“Outside his poems Cavafy does not exist.” Seventy-five years after the death of “the Alexandrian” (as he is known in Greece), the early verdict of his fellow poet George Seferis—which must have seemed rather harsh in 1946, when the Constantine Cavafy who had existed in flesh and blood was still a living memory for many people—seems only to gain in validity. That flesh-and-blood existence was, after all, fairly unremarkable: a middling job as a government bureaucrat, a modest, even parsimonious routine, no great fame or recognition until relatively late (and even then hardly great), a private life of homosexual encounters kept so discreet that even today its content, as much as there was content, remains largely unknown to us.
All this—the mediocrity, the obscurity (whether intentional or not)—stands in such marked contrast to the poetry, with its haunted memories of seethingly passionate encounters in the present and its astoundingly rich imagination of the remote Greek past, from Homer to Byzantium, from Alexandria and Rome to barely Hellenized provincial cities in the Punjab, that it has been hard not to agree with Seferis that the “real” life of the poet was, in fact, almost completely interior; and that outside that imagination and those memories, there was little of lasting interest.
As the man and everyone who knew him have passed into history, the contrast between the life and the art has made it easy to think of Cavafy in the abstract, as an artist whose work exists untethered to a specific moment in time. This trend has been given impetus by the two elements of his poetry for which he is most famous: his startlingly contemporary subject (one of his subjects, at any rate) and his appealingly straightforward style. Certainly there have always been many readers who appreciate the so-called historical poems, set in marginal Mediterranean locales and long-dead eras and tart with mondain irony and a certain weary stoicism. (“Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey; / without her you wouldn’t have set upon the road. / But now she has nothing left to give you,” he writes in what is perhaps his most famous evocation of ancient Greek culture, which tells us that the journey is always more important than the inevitably disappointing destination.)
But it is probably fair to say that Cavafy’s popular reputation currently rests almost entirely on the remarkably prescient way in which those other, “sensual” poems, as often as not set in the poet’s present, treat the ever-fascinating and pertinent themes of erotic longing, fulfillment, and loss; the way, too, in which memory preserves what desire so often cannot sustain. That the desire and longing were for other men only makes him seem more contemporary, more at home in our own times.
As for the style, it is by now a commonplace that Cavafy’s language, because it was so bare of common poetic devices—image, simile, metaphor, specialized diction—is tantamount to prose. One of the first to make this observation was Seferis himself, during the same 1946 lecture at Athens in which he passed judgment on Cavafy’s life: “Cavafy stands at the boundary where poetry strips herself in order to become prose,” he remarked, although not without admiration. “He is the most anti-poetic (or a-poetic) poet I know.” Bare of its own nuances, that appraisal, and others like it, have inevitably filtered into the popular consciousness and been widely disseminated—not least because the idea of a plainspoken, wholly modern Cavafy, impatient with the frills and fripperies characteristic of his Belle Epoque youth, dovetails nicely with what so many see as his principal subject, one that seems to be wholly contemporary, too.
No one more than Cavafy, who studied history not only avidly but with a scholar’s respect for detail and meticulous attention to nuance, would have recognized the dangers of abstracting people from their historical surroundings; and nowhere is this more true than in the case of Cavafy himself. To be sure, his work—the best of it, at any rate, which is as good as great poetry gets—is indeed timeless in the way we like to think that great literature can be, alchemizing the particulars of the poet’s life, times, and obsessions into something relevant to a wide public over years and even centuries. But the tendency to see him as one of us, as someone of our own moment, speaking to us in a voice that is transparently, recognizably our own about things whose meaning is self-evident, threatens to take a crucial specificity away from him—one that, if we restore it to him, makes him seem only greater, more a poet of the future (as he once described himself).
I am referring here, of course, to the particulars of the “life” that Seferis denied him, which is to say to his place and time. By “place and time” I mean, first of all, his own: the fervid if declining peripheries of the cosmopolitan Greek diaspora (Alexandria: always; never Athens) and the nineteenth century, which—astoundingly, it sometimes seems—he inhabited for more than half his life. The latter deeply colored his early style (many readers will be surprised to learn that much of Cavafy’s output, until he was nearly forty, was in sonnet form), while the former had a lasting influence on his themes, particularly his lifelong penchant for exploring the margins, the obscurer realms of Greek history and geography—Seleucia and Antioch and Cyrene, the second century BC and the fifth and seventh and fourteenth AD—and, of course, the obscurer realms of erotic experience as well. Being on the margins is, in fact, the key to this poet’s work, both “historical” and “sensual.” To fail to appreciate Cavafy’s unique perspective, one that (as it were) allowed him to see history with a lover’s eye, and love with a historian’s eye, is to be deprived of a chance to see the great and moving unity of the poet’s project.
In one sense, it was indeed an unexceptional life—or at least, no more exceptional or distinguished than the lives of certain other great poets, in whom the richness of the work stands in striking contrast to the relative uneventfulness of the life (Emily Dickinson, say). Constantine Petrou Cavafy—the Anglicized spelling of the Greek Kavafis was one that Cavafy and his family invariably used—was born in Alexandria in 1863, the youngest of seven surviving sons of parents whose families were not at all untypical of the far-flung Greek diaspora, with its hints of vanished empire. Their roots could be traced not only to the Phanar, the Greek community clustered around the Patriarchate in Constantinople, and to Nichori (Turkish Yeniköi) in the Upper Bosporus, but also to Caesarea, to Antioch, and to Jassy, in present-day Moldavia.
His father, Peter John Cavafy, was a partner in a flourishing family business devoted to corn and cotton export that eventually had offices in London and Liverpool as well as in several cities in Egypt; after moving from Constantinople to London, he finally settled in Alexandria, where he would be considered one of the most important merchants in the mid-1850s (not coincidentally, a time when the Crimean War resulted in a steep rise in the price of grain). The poet’s mother, Haricleia Photiades, the daughter of a diamond merchant from Constantinople, counted an archbishop of Caesarea and a prince of Samos among her relations.
What effect the memory of such glory and prestige—carefully tended and endlessly polished by his mother long after she’d become a widow living in not very genteel poverty—might have had on her impressionable and imaginative youngest son, we can only guess at; but it is surely no accident that so much of Cavafy’s poetry is torn between deep sentiment about the lost riches of the past and the intelligent child’s rueful, sharp-eyed appreciation for the dangers of glib nostalgia. For his father’s premature death, when Constantine was only seven, would bring hard times to Haricleia and her sons, from which the family fortunes would never really recover. Peter John had lived well but not wisely.
For several years the widow Cavafy and her three younger sons ambled back and forth between Paris and London and Liverpool, relying on the generosity of her husband’s brothers. They stayed in England for five years, where Cavafy acquired the slight British inflection that, we are told, accented his Greek. When it became clear that the surviving brothers had hopelessly bungled their own affairs, Haricleia returned to Alexandria in 1877, when Cavafy was fourteen. With the exception of a three-year sojourn in Constantinople, from 1882 to 1885, following the British bombardment of Alexandria (a response to Egyptian nationalist violence against some of the city’s European inhabitants; the bombardment largely destroyed the family home), Cavafy would never live anywhere else again.
For some time, the life he lived there was, as he later described it to his friend Timos Malanos, a “double life.” The poet had probably had his first homosexual affair around the age of twenty, with a cousin, during his family’s stay in Constantinople; there is no question that he continued to act on the desires that were awakened at that time once he returned to Alexandria. By day, when he was in his middle and late twenties, he was his corpulent mother’s dutiful son (he called her, in English, “the Fat One”), working gratis as a clerk at the Irrigation Office of the Ministry of Public Works in the hopes of obtaining a salaried position there. (This he eventually did, in 1892, remaining at the office with the famously Dantesque name—the Third Circle of Irrigation—until his retirement, thirty years later.) From seven-thirty to ten in the evening he was expected to dine with the exigent and neurotic Haricleia. Afterward, he would escape to the city’s louche quarters.
One friend recalled that he kept a room in a brothel on the Rue Mosquée Attarine; another that he would return from his exploits and write, in large letters on a piece of paper, “I swear I won’t do it again.” Like many bourgeois homosexual men of his era and culture (and indeed later ones) he seems to have enjoyed the favors, and company, of lower-class youths: another acquaintance would recall Cavafy telling him that he’d once worked briefly as a dishwasher in a restaurant in order to save the job of one such friend, who’d been taken ill. About the youths and men he slept with we know little. We do know, from an extraordinary series of secret notes that he kept about his habitual masturbation, that the amusing Alexandrian nickname for that activity—“39,” because it was thought to be that many times more exhausting than any other sexual activity—was not entirely unjustified:
And yet I see clearly the harm and confusion that my actions produce upon my organism. I must, inflexibly, impose a limit on myself till 1 April, otherwise I shan’t be able to travel. I shall fall ill and how am I to cross the sea, and if I’m ill, how am I to enjoy my journey? Last January I managed to control myself. My health got right at once, I had no more throbbing. 6 March 1897.1
At about the same time he’d settled in his rather dreary job, he began to write and publish seriously. Apart from that, the life he led, as he got older, wasn’t noticeably different from that of many a mid-level provincial functionary. He enjoyed gambling, in moderation; he played the stock market, not without success. Apart from his constant and extensive reading of ancient and modern historians in a variety of languages, his tastes in literature were hardly remarkable. His library of about three hundred volumes contained a quantity of what his younger Alexandrian friend the botanist J.A. Sareyannis later recalled, with a palpable shudder, as “unmentionable novels by unknown and forgotten writers.” An exception was Proust, the second volume of whose Le Côté de Guermantes he borrowed from a friend not long after its publication. “The grandmother’s death!” he enthused to Sareyannis. “What a masterpiece! Proust is a great writer! A very great writer!” (Interestingly, he was less enthusiastic about the opening of Sodome et Gomorrhe, which he dismissed as “pre-war.”) He particularly enjoyed detective novels. Simenon was a favorite in his last years.
Almost a decade after his mother died, he came to live at the overstuffed apartment on Rue Lepsius (today the Cavafy Museum), where he would spend the rest of his life. For Sareyannis, it is only too clear, the poet’s taste in décor was clearly no better than his taste in fiction:
Cavafy’s flat was on an upper floor of a rather lower-class, unkempt apartment house. Upon entering, one saw a wide hall laden with furniture. No walls were to be seen anywhere, as they were covered with paintings and, most of all, with shelves or Arabian étagères holding countless vases—small ones, large ones, even enormous ones. Various doors were strung along that hall; the last one opened onto the salon where the poet received his visitors…. It was crowded with the most incongruous things: faded velvet armchairs, old Bokhara and Indian stuffs at the windows and on the sofa, a black desk with gilt ornament, folding chairs like those found in colonial bungalows, shelves on the walls and tables with countless little columns and mother-of-pearl, a koré from Tanagra, tasteless turn-of-the-century vases, every kind of Oriental rug, Chinese vases, paintings, and so on and so on. I could single out nothing as exceptional and really beautiful; the way everything was amassed reminded me of a secondhand furniture store…. Whether Cavafy himself chose and collected those assorted objects or whether he inherited them, I do not know; what is certain is that Cavafy’s hand, his design, could not be felt in any of that. I imagine that he just came slowly to love them, with time, as they were gradually covered with dust and memories, as they became no longer just objects, but ambiance.2
The cluttered, déclassé surroundings, the absence of aesthetic distinction, the startlingly conventional, to say nothing of middlebrow, taste: Cavafy’s apartment, like his job, gave little outward sign of the presence of a great artistic mind—the place from which the poetry really came. The more you know about the life, the more Seferis’s pronouncement that Cavafy existed only in his poetry seems just.
Most evenings, as he grew older, found him at home, either alone with a book or surrounded by a crowd of people that was, in every way, Alexandrian: a mixture of Greeks, Jews, Syrians, visiting Belgians, established writers such as the novelist and children’s book author Penelope Delta and Nikos Kazantzakis, a critic or two, younger friends, and aspiring writers. (Among the latter, eventually, was Alexander Sengopoulos, known as Aleko, who was very possibly the illegitimate son of one of Cavafy’s brothers—acquaintances remarked on a striking family resemblance—and would eventually be his heir.)
To these friends and admirers the poet liked to hold forth in a voice of unusual charm and authority and in the mesmerizing if idiosyncratic manner memorably described by E.M. Forster, who met Cavafy during World War I, when Forster was working for the Red Cross in Alexandria. It was Forster who would do more than anyone to bring Cavafy to the attention of the English-speaking world, and it is to him that we owe the by now canonical description of the poet as “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” Cavafy, the novelist recalled,
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…. It deals with the tricky behaviour of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1096, or with olives, their possibilities and price, or with the fortunes of friends, or George Eliot, or the dialects of the interior of Asia Minor. It is delivered with equal ease in Greek, English, or French. And despite its intellectual richness and human outlook, despite the matured charity of its judgments, one feels that it too stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet.
It was, in other words, a life that was a bit of a hybrid: the fervent, unseen artistic activity; the increasingly tame pleasures of a middling bourgeois existence; the tawdry quartier ; the abstruse, rather baroque conversation. Not coincidentally, the latter pair of adjectives well describes a particular literary manner—characteristic of the Hellenistic authors who flocked to the era’s cultural capital two millennia earlier, and who were so beloved of Cavafy—known as “Alexandrian.”
In 1932, Cavafy, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. That summer he traveled to Athens for the tracheotomy that would deprive him forever of the famous voice; from that point on, he was forced to communicate in a distorted whisper and, later on, by means of penciled notes. He returned home in the autumn, after declining an invitation from his wealthy friend Antony Benakis, a collector and the brother of Penelope Delta, to stay with him in Athens. (“Mohammed Aly Square is my aunt. Rue Cherif Pasha is my first cousin, and the Rue de Ramleh my second. How can I leave them?”) After first refusing and then allowing himself to be visited by the Patriarch of Alexandria, he died in the Greek Hospital in Alexandria, on April 29, 1933, his seventieth birthday: an elegant closure that is nicely suggested by what is said to have been his last act. For we are told that on one of the pieces of paper that had become his sole mode of communication, he drew a circle; and then placed a small dot in the middle of that circle. Whatever he may have meant by that glyph, certain people will recognize in it an apt symbol. It is the conventional notation, used by writers when correcting printer’s proofs, for the insertion of a period, a full stop.
“In the poems of his youth and even certain poems of his middle age he quite often appears ordinary and lacking in any great distinction,” Seferis remarked during his 1946 lecture—another rather severe judgment whose underlying shrewdness cannot be denied, when we go back to so many of the poems Cavafy wrote in his thirties and even early forties, with their obvious debts to other writers and thinkers, their evasions and obfuscations. And then, as Seferis went on to say, “something very extraordinary happens.” As will be evident by now, little about the external events of Cavafy’s life helps to account for that remarkable evolutionary leap. Only by tracing the course of his interior life, his intellectual development, from the 1890s to the 1910s is it possible to discern the path by which (to paraphrase that other great Greek poet again) Cavafy went from being a mediocre writer to a great one.
As a young littérateur in the 1880s and 1890s, when he was in his twenties and thirties, he was steadily writing quantities of verse as well as contributing articles, reviews, and essays, most in Greek but some in English (a language in which he was perfectly at home as the result of those adolescent years spent in England), on a broad range of idiosyncratic subjects to Alexandrian and Athenian journals (“Coral from a Mythological Viewpoint,” “Give Back the Elgin Marbles,” Keats’s Lamia ). Such writings, as well as the historical poems that belong to this early period, already betray not only a deep familiarity with a broad range of modern historians, which he read in Greek, English, and French, but also the meticulous attentiveness to primary sources in the original languages—classical and later Greek and Roman historians, the early Church Fathers, Byzantine chroniclers—that we tend to associate with scholars rather than poets.
The writings of those early years indicate that Cavafy was struggling to find an artistically satisfying way in which to unite the thematic strands that would come to characterize his work, of which the consuming interest in Hellenic history was merely one. (That interest, it is crucial to emphasize, rather strikingly disdained the conventional view of what constituted “the glory that was Greece”—which is to say, the Archaic and Classical eras—in favor of the long post-classical phase, from the Hellenistic monarchies through late antiquity to the fall of Byzantium.) There was, too, the poet’s very strong identity as a product of the Greek diaspora, an Orthodox Christian and the scion of that once-distinguished Phanariote family who saw, in the thousand-year arc of Byzantine history, not a decadent fall from idealized classical heights—the standard Western European attitude, crystallized by Gibbon—but a continuous and coherent thread of Greek identity that seamlessly bound the antique past to the present.
And finally, there was homosexual sensuality. However tormented and secretive he may have been about his desire for other men, Cavafy came, after a certain point in his career, to write about that desire with an unapologetic directness so unsensational, so matter-of-fact, that we can forget that barely ten years had passed since Oscar Wilde’s death when the first of these openly homoerotic poems was published. As the poet himself later acknowledged, he had to reach his late forties before he found a way to unify his passion for the past, his passion for “Hellenic” civilization, and his passion for other men in poems that met his rigorous standards for publication.
The earliest poems we have date to the poet’s late teens, when he was sojourning with his mother’s family in and around Constantinople. These include dutiful if unpersuasive exercises on Romantic themes (ecstatic encomia to the lovely eyes of fetching lasses; a Grecified adaptation of Lady Anne Barnard’s ballad on love and loss in the Highlands), some flights of Turkish Orientalism, complete with smoldering beauties locked up in harems.
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
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.
November 20, 2008
The Co-President at Work
At Gull Pond
Two Paths for the Novel
Quoted in Robert Liddell, Cavafy: A Critical Biography (London: Duckworth, 1974, reprinted 2000), p. 72. ↩
J.A. Sareyannis, “What Was Most Precious—His Form” (1944), translated by Diana Haas, Grand Street, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Spring 1983). This article may now be found on the official Web site of the Cavafy Archives in Athens at www.cavafy.com/companion/essays/list.asp. ↩
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. ↩