Monday, 29 April 2013

Remembering Cavafy on his birthday and the anniversary of his death

’Hope the voyage is a long one. / May there be many a summer morning when, / with what pleasure, what joy, / you come into harbours seen for the first time’ … the harbour at Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

To mark the 150th anniversary today [29 April] of the birth of the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης, 1863-1933) and the 80th anniversary of his death on the same day, I have chosen two of my favourite poems by Cavafy to read this morning: Ιθάκη (‘Ithaka’) and Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον (‘The God Abandons Antony’)

Cavafy was born in Alexandria 29 April 1863 (17 April Old Style), and died in the same city on 29 April 1933. His most important poetry was written after his 40th birthday. He published 154 poems, but dozens more remained incomplete or in sketch form.

The Alexandria Cavafy writes about has now mostly vanished, and there are few Greeks left in the city, where his apartment is maintained as a museum and library by the Greek government.

As I visited his former apartment, I was told again how, in his dying days, Cavafy had asked: “Where could I live better? 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.”

Some 20 years after Cavafy’s death, WH Auden spoke of his “unique perspective on the world” and his “unique tone of voice.” The Greek poet George Seferis conceded that he was the most important poet in the 20th century writing in Greek. Auden spoke of the unique capacity of Cavafy’s work to survive translation, so that the reader who has no Greek still feels on reading a poem by Cavafy that “nobody else could possibly have written it.”

Ιθάκη (‘Ithaka’)

Penelope waiting for Odysseus ... Μαριάννα Βαλλιάνου, Η επιστροφή, Mariánna Valliánou, ‘The Return’

Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ was one of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ favourite poems and she asked Maurice Templesman to read it at her funeral in May 1994. He concluded his reading by saying: “And now the journey is over, too short, alas, too short. It was filled with adventure and wisdom, laughter and love, gallantry and grace. So farewell, farewell.” When the New York Times reprinted the poem, it inspired a rush of sales of Cavafy’s Collected Poems, with new printings and new English translations.

That sudden rise in interest in Cavafy, brought about by such a simple poem, shows how most of us have an inborn ability to love poetry. Cavafy paints captivating images of ships sailing into harbours on summer mornings, of exotic bazaars and souks. Yet the lasting image is of the journey of life being of value in itself, rather than any of the honours or recognition we strive in vain to achieve.

In the poem ‘Ithaka,’ Cavafy transforms Homer’s account of the return of Odysseus from the Trojan War to his home island. This transformation is a variation on how Dante and Tennyson handle the same theme. They offer an Odysseus who arrives home after a long absence only to find Ithaka less than fully satisfying and who soon makes plans to travel forth a second time.

However, Cavafy answers them by telling Odysseus that arriving in Ithaka is what he is destined for, and that he must keep that always in mind: one’s destiny, the inevitable end of the journey, is a thing to be faced for what it is, without illusions.

The meaning of Ithaka is in the voyage home that it inspired. It is not reaching home or again escaping its limitations once there that should occupy Odysseus so much as those elevated thoughts and rare excitement that are a product of the return voyage.

As Edmund Keeley says, this new perspective is what frees the voyager’s soul of the monsters, obstacles and angry gods, so that when the voyager reaches his Ithaka he will be rich not with what Ithaka has to offer him on his return, but with all that he has gained along the way, including his coming to know that this perspective on things, this unhurried devotion to pleasure and knowledge, is Ithaka’s ultimate value.

“As you set out for Ithaka/ hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery” … the waters around Spinalonga in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Ιθάκη, Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωιά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους
να σταματήσεις σ’ εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν’ αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ’ έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά
σε πόλεις Aιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ’ τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί είν’ ο προορισμός σου.
Aλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξείδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει
και γέρος πια ν’ αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στον δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ’ έδωσε τ’ ωραίο ταξείδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δεν σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες η Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν

Ithaka, Constantine P. Cavafy

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon – you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind –
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

– Constantine Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

CP Cavafy ... a portrait by David Hockney

Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον (‘The God Abandons Antony’)

My second choice of poem, Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον (‘The God Abandons Antony’), was published in 1911. The poem refers to Plutarch’s story of how Antony, besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, hears the sounds of instruments and voices of a procession making its way through the city, then passing out. Antony feels that his protector, the god Dionysus (Bacchus) is deserting him.

It is a poem with many layers of meaning, but is also a lesson on how to face a great loss. Alexandria is a symbol for a beloved city, a woman, past glory, but, above all else, life itself, making this a poem too on facing death.

Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον, Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

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.

The God Abandons Anthony , Constantine P. Cavafy

When suddenly, at midnight, 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 graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that 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 graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of 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.

– Constantine Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

An interpretation by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen on stage at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, last September (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Leonard Cohen freely adapted Cavafy’s poem for his song ‘Alexandra Leaving’ on Ten New Songs (2001).

But, while Cavafy’s poem is set in his beloved city, Alexandria, Leonard Cohen’s poem and song tells of the loss of a beloved woman named Alexandra.

‘Alexandra Leaving,’ Leonard Cohen

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 honor of her evening,
And by the honor 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.

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