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Wednesday 1 May 2013

Words on Wednesday: C.P. Cavafy

I. Brief Biography

Constantine Cavafy was an Anglo-Greek poet born in Egypt in 1863. The family moved to England when Constantine was nine after his father died. The eldest brother George took over the family business (Constantine was the youngest of nine), but performed very poorly and after seven years in Liverpool and London, Constantine returned to Alexandria, Egypt, when the firm was liquidated in 1879.

Cavafy lived the rest of his life in Alexandria, working first as a journalist, but later worked as a civil servant for thirty years in the Ministry of Public Works.  He died of cancer of the larynx, at the age of seventy on his birthday indeed, in 1933.

Although he published 154 poems while alive, it has been after his death that his reputation has grown (certainly in the anglophone world). He wrote and published the majority of his work in later life (after 1911). His best known poem is probably Ithaca (1911) based on the Homeric epic and many of his poems also feature mythic and historical characters and places from Greek antiquity.

II. Some early poems

WALLS (1896)

With no consideration, no pity, no shame,

they've built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can't think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind -
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they've closed me off from the outside world.

CANDLES (1899)

Days to come stand in front of us 

like a row of burning candles-
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days past fall behind us,

a gloomy line of burnt-out candles;
the nearest are still smoking,
cold, melted, and bent.

I don't want to look at them: their shape saddens me,

and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my burning candles.

I don't want to turn, don't want to see, terrified,

how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly one more dead candle joins another.


 Inside  their worn, tattered bodies
sit the souls of old men.
How unhappy the poor things are
and how bored by the pathetic life they live.
How they tremble for fear of losing that life, and how much 
they love it, those befuddled and contradictory souls,
sitting - half comic and half tragic -
inside their old, threadbare skins.


In these dark rooms where I live out empty days,
I wander round and round
trying to find the windows.
It will be a great relief when a window opens.
But the windows aren't there to be found -
or at least I can't find them. And perhaps
it's better if I don't find them.
Perhaps the light will prove another tyranny.
Who knows what new things it will expose?


What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

     The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

     Because the barbarians are coming today.
     What's the point of senators making laws now?
     Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
     He's even got a scroll to give him,
     loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
     and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

     Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
     And some of our men just in from the border say
     there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people 
were a kind of solution.