Tuesday, 14 February 2012

‘Whoever loves … lives in the light’

‘Whoever loves … lives in the light’ (I John 2: 10) ... the Bridge of Sighs at Saint John’s College (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The New Testament reading in the daily lectionary of the Church of Ireland for Morning Prayer today [14 February 2012] is I John 2: 1-11:

1 Τεκνία μου, ταῦτα γράφω ὑμῖν ἵνα μὴ ἁμάρτητε. καὶ ἐάν τις ἁμάρτῃ, παράκλητον ἔχομεν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα, Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν δίκαιον: 2 καὶ αὐτὸς ἱλασμός ἐστιν περὶ τῶν ἁμαρτιῶν ἡμῶν, οὐ περὶ τῶν ἡμετέρων δὲ μόνον ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ ὅλου τοῦ κόσμου.

3 Καὶ ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐγνώκαμεν αὐτόν, ἐὰν τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ τηρῶμεν. 4 ὁ λέγων ὅτι Ἔγνωκα αὐτόν, καὶ τὰς ἐντολὰς αὐτοῦ μὴ τηρῶν, ψεύστης ἐστίν, καὶ ἐν τούτῳ ἡ ἀλήθεια οὐκ ἔστιν: 5 ὃς δ' ἂν τηρῇ αὐτοῦ τὸν λόγον, ἀληθῶς ἐν τούτῳ ἡ ἀγάπη τοῦ θεοῦ τετελείωται. ἐν τούτῳ γινώσκομεν ὅτι ἐν αὐτῷ ἐσμεν: 6 ὁ λέγων ἐν αὐτῷ μένειν ὀφείλει καθὼς ἐκεῖνος περιεπάτησεν καὶ αὐτὸς [οὕτως] περιπατεῖν.

7 Ἀγαπητοί, οὐκ ἐντολὴν καινὴν γράφω ὑμῖν, ἀλλ' ἐντολὴν παλαιὰν ἣν εἴχετε ἀπ' ἀρχῆς: ἡ ἐντολὴ ἡ παλαιά ἐστιν ὁ λόγος ὃν ἠκούσατε. 8 πάλιν ἐντολὴν καινὴν γράφω ὑμῖν, ὅ ἐστιν ἀληθὲς ἐν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν, ὅτι ἡ σκοτία παράγεται καὶ τὸ φῶς τὸ ἀληθινὸν ἤδη φαίνει. 9 ὁ λέγων ἐν τῷ φωτὶ εἶναι καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ μισῶν ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν ἕως ἄρτι. 10 ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φωτὶ μένει, καὶ σκάνδαλον ἐν αὐτῷ οὐκ ἔστιν: 11 ὁ δὲ μισῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ ἐστὶν καὶ ἐν τῇ σκοτίᾳ περιπατεῖ, καὶ οὐκ οἶδεν ποῦ ὑπάγει, ὅτι ἡ σκοτία ἐτύφλωσεν τοὺς ὀφθαλμοὺς αὐτοῦ.

1 My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

3 Now by this we may be sure that we know him, if we obey his commandments. 4 Whoever says, ‘I have come to know him’, but does not obey his commandments, is a liar, and in such a person the truth does not exist; 5 but whoever obeys his word, truly in this person the love of God has reached perfection. By this we may be sure that we are in him: 6 whoever says, ‘I abide in him’, ought to walk just as he walked.

7 Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning; the old commandment is the word that you have heard. 8 Yet I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you, because the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining. 9 Whoever says, ‘I am in the light’, while hating a brother or sister, is still in the darkness. 10 Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates another believer is in the darkness, walks in the darkness, and does not know the way to go, because the darkness has brought on blindness.

ὁ ἀγαπῶν τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ἐν τῷ φωτὶ μένει, ‘Whoever loves … lives in the light’ – a perfect thought for today, Saint Valentine’s Day.

Searching for hope in the midst of hopelessness

CP Cavafy ... a portrait by David Hockney

Patrick Comerford

The present protests in Greece are becoming reminiscent of the protests in November 1974 that brought about the downfall of the colonels’ junta. But the majority of Greeks are not taking part in the protests, and many Greeks are laconic as they face a future that appears to be devoid of hope.

As hope – hope for the present and hope for the future – appear to have abandoned Greece and Greeks, how are they going to learn to live with a loss that is even greater than financial loss?

This hopeless but laconic attitude to a future over which one has no control may be dissipated in the weeks to come. But over the past few days it has brought to mind a poem by CP Cavafy, one of the great Greek poets of the 20th century, on the loss of hope for the present and for the future – ‘The god abandons Antony.’

Searching for Cavafy

Although he is a modern Greek poet, Cavafy was born in the Egyptian Mediterranean city of Alexandria, once one of the largest Greek cities.

Some years ago, I travelled through Egypt on a few working trips, visiting churches, monasteries and church projects in Cairo, Menouf, Alexandria, the Nile Delta, the Western Desert and Mount Sinai. In Alexandria, I once broke away from my small group to spend a few hours on my own searching for Cavafy’s Alexandria. Of course, by then almost all the Greeks of Alexandria had been forced to leave the city.

It was easy to find the apartment where the poet lived, and from there I found the neighbouring church and hospital he often wrote about. But it took a little more imagination to find the coffee shops he talked about in his letters and poems.

The apartment where Cavafy lived for most of his adult life is now a museum. When he lived there, the address was Rue Lepsius 10. But Nasserite excesses almost half a century ago saw the address changed in 1967 to Sharia Sharm el Sheikh 4 – although the name change commemorated not the Red Sea resort or a military victory, but a defeat in the Six Days’ War.

By the time I visited Alexandria in the past decade, the cafés Cavafy frequented on the Rue Misalla had been replaced mainly by shops, and once again the street name had been changed, this time to Safiya Zaghlul.

Last year, however, at the height of the Arab Spring, the city reclaimed the poet’s memory and legacy, and in February 2011 the street where he lived was renamed CP Cavafy Street.

A modern Greek poet

Constantine P Cavafy (Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, or Kabaphs) is a leading figure in 20th century Greek literature. He was born in Alexandria almost 150 years ago, on 29 April 1863, into a wealthy merchant family from Constantinople. After the early death of his father, Peter John Cavafy, in 1872, Cavafy was brought to England and lived in Liverpool for five years. But, apart from three years in Constantinople, from 1882 to 1885, he spent the rest of his life in Alexandria.

When his family’s prosperity declined, Cavafy worked for 34 years, on-and-off, as a journalist, broker, and in the Irrigation Service, interspersed with short trips to Athens, France, England and Italy, until he retired in 1922. He died in Alexandria on his 70th birthday, 29 April 1933.

Cavafy was a ruthless self-critic, often troubled by his own unorthodox values – so self-critical, in fact, that he published little during his own lifetime. He rejected traditional Christian values, and the prevailing views on sexual ethics, nationalism and patriotism. He developed his own individualistic style, mixing a stilted and artificial use of Classical and Byzantine Greek with contemporary, demotic or vernacular Greek.

Past and present, East and West, Greek and ‘barbarian,’ were fused into sophisticated commentaries on paganism, Christianity, and a decadent modern world. He sketched a rich gallery of historical, semi-obscure, or fictitious characters, using them as dramatis personae to act or be discussed in his poems. Sometimes his style is dramatic, as in ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ written in 1898 and printed in 1904.

In his poems, he often superimposes events and images from the Hellenistic and Byzantine worlds with events in his own time – two of the best-known examples of this are his poems ‘The god abandons Antony’ and ‘Ithaka’, both written over 100 years ago, in 1911.

His first publication came when he was 41 and 14 of his poems were published in a pamphlet in 1904. This was reissued in 1910 in an enlarged edition, with seven additional poems. Several dozen more poems appeared later in printed booklets and broadsheets. He was perfectionist, printing his poems himself and delivering them only to close friends, sometimes with handwritten corrections. But these often contained the same poems mostly, first arranged thematically, and then chronologically. About one-third of his poems were never printed in any form while he was alive.

He died in 1933. The Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy appeared posthumously in Alexandria in 1935, and was reprinted in 1949.

Cavafy’s poems were first brought to the attention of English-speaking readers by EM Forster, who refers to him in his study of Alexandria, Pharos and Pharillon (1923), which included a selection of Cavafy’s poems. Forster included ‘The god abandons Antony’ in the middle of both Pharos and Pharillon and Alexandria: A History and a Guide, marking a division that occurs in each book. But ‘The god abandons Antony’ does more than mark the division in these two books, for it also provided a fitting farewell to the Alexandria Forster was leaving.

In 1924, Forster persuaded TS Eliot to include several of Cavafy’s lyrics in The Criterion.

Lawrence Durrell refers to Cavafy in his Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960). The Complete Poems of Cavafy (1961), translated by Rae Dalven and with an introduction by WH Auden, established Cavafy’s reputation half a century ago, and ensured him an enduring place in Western literature.

The Alexandria of Cavafy

Cavafy once wrote, with a touch of irony, of Alexandria, a once-cosmopolitan city:

Whatever war-damage it’s suffered,
however much smaller it’s become,
it’s still a wonderful city.


However, by Cavafy’s time, nothing of the ancient Greek city had survived the Arab conquest. But his poetry takes no account of Alexandria’s Arab heritage. Instead, he cherishes the Greek world of Alexander the Great and his followers, the old, lost civilised world beyond which only “Barbarians” lived, and the world of Byzantine Alexandria.

In his poem ‘Waiting for the Barbarians,’ Cavafy comments on the role supposed to have been assumed by the newly-arrived new rulers:

And now what shall become of us without any barbarians?
Those people were some kind of solution.


This deliberately flat ending has parallels with TS Eliot’s closing words in ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925):

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


Renaming Cavafy Street in Alexandria in February 2011

‘The god abandons Antony’

‘The god abandons Antony’ (also known as ‘The god forsakes Antony’) was first published by Cavafy in 1911. The poem draws on Plutarch’s story of how Mark Antony, as he is besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, hears the sounds of instruments and voices of a procession making their way through the city and then passing out. Mark Antony realises that night that his protector, the god Bacchus (Dionysos), is deserting him.

Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον Αναγνωρισμένα

Σαν έξαφνα, ώρα μεσάνυχτ’, ακουσθεί
αόρατος θίασος να περνά
με μουσικές εξαίσιες, με φωνές—
την τύχη σου που ενδίδει πια, τα έργα σου
που απέτυχαν, τα σχέδια της ζωής σου
που βγήκαν όλα πλάνες, μη ανωφέλετα θρηνήσεις.
Σαν έτοιμος από καιρό, σα θαρραλέος,
αποχαιρέτα την, την Aλεξάνδρεια που φεύγει.
Προ πάντων να μη γελασθείς, μην πεις πως ήταν
ένα όνειρο, πως απατήθηκεν η ακοή σου•
μάταιες ελπίδες τέτοιες μην καταδεχθείς.
Σαν έτοιμος από καιρό, σα θαρραλέος,
σαν που ταιριάζει σε που αξιώθηκες μια τέτοια πόλι,
πλησίασε σταθερά προς το παράθυρο,
κι άκουσε με συγκίνησιν, αλλ’ όχι
με των δειλών τα παρακάλια και παράπονα,
ως τελευταία απόλαυσι τους ήχους,
τα εξαίσια όργανα του μυστικού θιάσου,
κι αποχαιρέτα την, την Aλεξάνδρεια που χάνεις.


(Από τα Ποιήματα 1897-1933, Ίκαρος 1984)

The poem was translated by John Mavrogordatos and included in The poems of CP Cavafy (London: Hogarth Press, 1951, p. 26). But the best-known translation into English is by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard:

At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive – don’t mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and full of courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion,
but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final pleasure – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.


The story behind the poem

In ‘The god abandons Antony,’ Cavafy draws on Plutarch’s Life of Anthony and, to a lesser degree, on Shakespeare’s play, Anthony and Cleopatra, to describe a deep sense of loss through the fictional voice of the unknown person who addresses Mark Antony.

The Antony is Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Cleopatra’s lover. Plutarch’s story tells of how Mark Antony is besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus. On the night before the city falls into the hands of his enemies, Antony hears an invisible troupe leaving the city, and he hears the sounds of instruments and voices making their way through the city.

Seeing his fortunes turn around, seeing his glory vanish, seeing love turn to hatred, seeing a god’s favour turn to irony and sarcasm, Mark Antony faints, having realised the tragedy that is befalling him and that his protector, the god Bacchus (Dionysos) is deserting him and leaving the city of Alexandria, in effect telling Antony that he no longer had any divine support in his struggle against Octavian.

The speaker in Cavafy’s poem is simply a voice telling Antony not to mourn but to accept his fate without fear and without regret:

As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as it right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final delectation – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.


Inside Cavafy’s apartment in Alexandria

The meaning of a poem

Cavafy’s poem has many layers of meaning. But we can also read it as a poem about the way we can face great loss.

Cavafy’s beloved Alexandria serves as a symbol not only for lost battles, but also for lost hopes, lost glory and lost love – even for the loss of life itself.

It is a lesson not just on how to get to heaven but a lesson about how to live. It may even be a lesson in how to face death itself.

The influence of a poem

Some years ago, while I was teaching a course in Byzantine studies at the NUI Maynooth campus in Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny, I played a recording of the Greek actors Vasilis Panayi and John Ioannou reading Cavafy’s poem in Greek and English, and then played a recording of Leonard Cohen singing his song Alexandra Leaving

Leonard Cohen reportedly wrote this poem about love and loss in the 1960s while in Greece, but it took him almost four decades to perfect it in its lyrical form. In this song, which he included on his album, Ten New Songs (2001), he freely adapts Cavafy’s poem for his song ‘Alexandra Leaving.’

But, while Cavafy’s theme is based around the city of Alexandria, Cavafy’s beloved Alexandria becomes a beloved woman, and Cohen reinterprets the poem to tell of the end of an affair with this woman, Alexandra, and to tell of how to cope with lost love:

Suddenly the night has grown colder.
The God of love preparing to depart.
Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
They slip between the sentries of the heart.

Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
And radiant beyond your widest measure
They fall among the voices and the wine.

It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust.
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for this to happen,
Go firmly to the window, drink it in.
Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
Your firm commitments tangible again.

And you who had the honour of her evening,
And by the honour had your own restored.
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
Alexandra leaving with her lord.

Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
Do not say the moment was imagined;
Do not stoop to strategies like this.

As someone long prepared for the occasion;
In full command of every plan you wrecked.
Do not choose a coward’s explanation
That hides behind the cause and the effect.

And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed.
Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.