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Wednesday 29 May 2013

Words on Wednesday: Kavafy Koncludes.

Here are some 'final words' from C.P. Cavafy, all these poems come from towards the end of his life, but I don't think this is the last we'll see from Cavafy on this blog. 

I'm very pleased to have found the work of Constantine Cavafy and expect I'll return to his poetry repeatedly. One of the great benefits of working in a library when one loves books and literature is the occasional, quite accidental, discovery of some previously unknown writer.

Early published works (and short Biography)

Productive 'middle' period

A brief word about the excellent translation in my edition of C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (London: Catto & Windus, 1998), compared to some other translations (Cavafy wrote in Greek) Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard seem to have grasped the straightforward language abundant with wit and dry humour that can be passed over, focusing too much on his dramatic flourishes or classical forms.


Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard
what the Delphic Oracle had to say:
“Beware the age of seventy-three.”
Plenty of time to enjoy himself.
He’s thirty. The deadline
the god has given him is quite enough
to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome—
but wonderfully tired from that journey
devoted entirely to pleasure:
theatres, garden-parties, stadiums...
evenings in the cities of Achaia...
and, above all, the sensual delight of naked bodies...

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army—
Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.


I sit in a mood of reverie.
I've brought to Art desires and sensations:
things half-glimpsed,
faces or lines, certain indistinct memories
of unfulfilled love affairs. 

Let me submit to Art:
Art knows how to shape forms of Beauty,
almost imperceptibly completing life,
blending impressions, blending day with day.


For two years he studied with Ammonios Sakkas,
but he was bored by both philosophy and Sakkas.

Then he went into politics.
But he gave that up. That Prefect was an idiot,
and those around him solemn, officious nitwits:
their Greek—poor fools—barbaric.

After that he became
vaguely curious about the Church: to be baptized
and pass as a Christian. But he soon
let that one drop: it would certainly have caused a row
with his parents, ostentatious pagans,
and right away they would have stopped—

something too horrible to contemplate—
their extremely generous allowance.

But he had to do something. He began to haunt
the corrupt houses of Alexandria,
every secret den of debauchery.

Here he was fortunate:
he’d been given an extremely handsome figure.
and he enjoyed the divine gift.

His looks would last
at least another ten years. And after that?
Maybe he’ll go back to Sakkas.
Or if the old man has died meanwhile,
he’ll find another philosopher or sophist:
there’s always someone suitable around.

Or in the end he might possibly return
even to politics—commendably remembering
the traditions of his family,
duty toward the country,
and other resonant banalities of that kind.


He's lost him completely. And he now tries to find
his lips in the lips of each new lover,
he tries in the embrace of each new lover
to convince himself that it’s the same young man,
that it’s to him he gives himself.

He lost him completely, as though he never existed.
He wanted, his lover said, to save himself
from the tainted, sick form of sexual pleasure,
the tainted, shameful form of sexual pleasure.
There was still time, he said, to save himself.

He lost him completely, as though he never existed.
Through fantasy, through hallucination,
he tries to find his lips in the lips of other young men,
he longs to feel his kind of love once more.

DAYS OF 1896 (1927)

He's become completely degraded. His erotic tendencies,
condemned and strictly forbidden
(but innate for all that) were the cause of it:
society was totally narrow-minded.
He'd gradually lost what little money he had,
then his social standing, then his reputation.
Nearly thirty, he'd never worked a full year—
at least not at a legitimate job.
Sometimes he earned enough to get by
acting the go-between in deals considered shameful.
He ended up the type likely to compromise you thoroughly
if you were seen around with him often.

But this wasn't the whole story—that wouldn't be fair;
the memory of his beauty deserves better.
There is another angle; seen from that
he appears attractive, appears
a simple, genuine child of love,
without hesitation putting,

the pure sensuality of his pure flesh
above his honor and reputation.

Above his reputation? But society,
totally narrow-minded, had all its values wrong.


Said an aesthete: “What distillation from magic herbs
can I find—what distillation, following the recipe
of ancient Greco-Syrian magicians—that will bring back to me 

for one day (if its power doesn’t last longer), 
or even for a few hours,
my twenty-third year,
bring back to me my friend of twenty-two,
his beauty, his love.

What distillation, following the recipe
of ancient Greco-Syrian magicians, can be found
to bring back also—as part of this return to the past—
the little room we shared.”

ON THE OUTSKIRTS OF ANTIOCH (1932-33) Unpublished

We in Antioch were astonished when we heard
what Julian was up to now.

Apollo had made things clear to him at Daphni:
he didn’t want to give an oracle (as though we cared!),
he didn’t intend to speak prophetically 

unless his temple at Daphni was purified first.
The nearby dead, he declared, got on his nerves.

There are many tombs at Daphni.
One of those buried there
was the triumphant and holy martyr Vavylas,
wonder and glory of our church.

It was him the false god hinted at, him he feared.
As long as he felt him near he didn’t dare
pronounce his oracle: not a murmur.
(The false gods are terrified of our martyrs.)

The unholy Julian got worked up,
lost his temper and shouted: “Raise him, carry him out,
take him away immediately, this Vavylas.
You there, do you hear? He gets on Apollo’s nerves.
Grab him, raise him at once,
dig him out, 
take him wherever you want,
take him away, throw him out. I'm not fooling around.
Apollo said the temple has to be purified.”

We took it, the holy relic, and carried it elsewhere.
We took it, we carried it away in love and in honor.

And hasn’t the temple done brilliantly since!
In no time at all a colossal fire broke out, 
a terrible fire,
and both the temple and Apollo burned to the ground.

Ashes the idol: to be thrown out with the garbage.

Julian blew up, and he spread it around—
what else could he do?—that we, the Christians,
had set the fire. Let him say so.
It hasn’t been proved. Let him say so.
The essential point is: he blew up.

Sakkas (d. 243 A.D.)
The 'Socrates of Neoplatonism', who taught in Alexandria and who is said to have had Longinus, Herennius, Plotinus, and the two Origens among his disciples.