Sunday, 24 November 2013

Reading the poems of CP Cavafy
in the Greek School in Dublin

‘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, 2013)

Patrick Comerford

Introducing Cavafy

This year marks the 150th anniversary 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 [29 April; 17 April OS]. He is one of the leading figures in 20th century Greek literature, and I have chosen some of my favourite poems by Cavafy to read this afternoon, including: Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον (‘The God Abandons Antony’), Ιθάκη (‘Ithaka’) and Περιμένοντας τους Bαρβάρους (‘Waiting for the Barbarians’).

Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863, 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.

His family was 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.

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.”

The importance of Cavafy’s poetry today

The Greek poet George Seferis conceded that he was the most important poet in the 20th century writing in Greek. 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.

Renaming Cavafy Street in Alexandria in February 2011

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.

Over two years ago, 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.

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,’ are fused into sophisticated commentaries on paganism, Christianity, and a decadent modern world. He sketches 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, and The Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy appeared posthumously in Alexandria two years later 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 includes 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.

Inside Cavafy’s apartment in Alexandria

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.


A year earlier, Forster had 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.

Some 20 years after Cavafy’s death, WH Auden spoke of his “unique perspective on the world” and his “unique tone of voice.” 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.”

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

CP Cavafy ... a portrait by David Hockney

My first choice of poem this afternoon, Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον (‘The god abandons Antony’), was first published in 1911.

The present protests in Greece are becoming reminiscent of the protests forty years ago 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 – appears 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 this poem by Cavafy on the loss of hope for the present and for the future – ‘The god abandons Antony.’

‘The god abandons Antony’ (also known as ‘The god forsakes Antony’) was first published by Cavafy in 1911. The poem refers to Plutarch’s story of how Mark Antony, 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 musical instruments and voices in a procession that is making its 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.


It is a poem with many layers of meaning, but it is also a lesson on how to face a great loss. Alexandria stands as a symbol not only for lost battles and lost hopes, but for unrequited love, for a beloved city, for past glories or lost prosperity, but, above all else, for life itself as we realise with the passing the years that it is ebbing away.

Cavafy’s poem 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.

Απολείπειν ο θεός Aντώνιον

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:

The god abandons Anthony

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.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

An interpretation by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen on stage at the O2 in September (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

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:

‘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 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.

Κεριά (Candles)

‘Days to come stand in front of us / like a row of lighted candles … candles lighting in a Church in Rethymnon, Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Κεριά

Του μέλλοντος η μέρες στέκοντ’ εμπροστά μας
σα μια σειρά κεράκια αναμένα —
χρυσά, ζεστά, και ζωηρά κεράκια.

Η περασμένες μέρες πίσω μένουν,
μια θλιβερή γραμμή κεριών σβυσμένων•
τα πιο κοντά βγάζουν καπνόν ακόμη,
κρύα κεριά, λυωμένα, και κυρτά.

Δεν θέλω να τα βλέπω• με λυπεί η μορφή των,
και με λυπεί το πρώτο φως των να θυμούμαι.
Εμπρός κυττάζω τ’ αναμένα μου κεριά.

Δεν θέλω να γυρίσω να μη διω και φρίξω
τι γρήγορα που η σκοτεινή γραμμή μακραίνει,
τι γρήγορα που τα σβυστά κεριά πληθαίνουν.

(Από τα Ποιήματα 1897-1933, Ίκαρος 1984)

Candles

Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles—
golden, warm, and vivid candles.

Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
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 lighted candles.

I don’t want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

This poem was written in 1893 and was first published in 1896. In a note in English to his brother John when the poem was published, the poet regards this as “a good poem” than can be translated easily into English. But he is anxious to have the poem properly understood, and for the readers to see “a fleeting image of the mind.”.

While this poem is primitive in its own way, it shows Cavafy’s efforts to move beyond the imagery of simple nature to a metaphysical landscape that is more alive and subtle.

The person in this poem compares his future days to a row of lighted candles, On the other hand, his past days to a row of burned-out candles, a sight that he finds too terrifying to confront.

Ιθάκη (‘Ithaka’)

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

Two days ago [Friday, 22 November 2013], we marked the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of President John F Kennedy. Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ was one of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ favourite poems and she asked Maurice Templesman to read it at her funeral, almost 20 years ago, 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.”

I was in Crete at the time, and 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 earn or 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 excitements 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

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

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.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Περιμένοντας τους Bαρβάρους (Waiting for the Barbarians)

‘Το παιδομάζωμα’ (ή ‘το σκλαβοπάζαρο’) του Νικολάου Γύζη ... ‘The Levy of Christian Children,’ by Nicholas Ghyzis

Περιμένοντας τους Bαρβάρους

— Τι περιμένουμε στην αγορά συναθροισμένοι;

Είναι οι βάρβαροι να φθάσουν σήμερα.

— Γιατί μέσα στην Σύγκλητο μια τέτοια απραξία;
Τι κάθοντ’ οι Συγκλητικοί και δεν νομοθετούνε;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Τι νόμους πια θα κάμουν οι Συγκλητικοί;
Οι βάρβαροι σαν έλθουν θα νομοθετήσουν.

—Γιατί ο αυτοκράτωρ μας τόσο πρωί σηκώθη,
και κάθεται στης πόλεως την πιο μεγάλη πύλη
στον θρόνο επάνω, επίσημος, φορώντας την κορώνα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα.
Κι ο αυτοκράτωρ περιμένει να δεχθεί
τον αρχηγό τους. Μάλιστα ετοίμασε
για να τον δώσει μια περγαμηνή. Εκεί
τον έγραψε τίτλους πολλούς κι ονόματα.

— Γιατί οι δυο μας ύπατοι κ’ οι πραίτορες εβγήκαν
σήμερα με τες κόκκινες, τες κεντημένες τόγες•
γιατί βραχιόλια φόρεσαν με τόσους αμεθύστους,
και δαχτυλίδια με λαμπρά, γυαλιστερά σμαράγδια•
γιατί να πιάσουν σήμερα πολύτιμα μπαστούνια
μ’ ασήμια και μαλάματα έκτακτα σκαλιγμένα;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα•
και τέτοια πράγματα θαμπώνουν τους βαρβάρους.

—Γιατί κ’ οι άξιοι ρήτορες δεν έρχονται σαν πάντα
να βγάλουνε τους λόγους τους, να πούνε τα δικά τους;

Γιατί οι βάρβαροι θα φθάσουν σήμερα•
κι αυτοί βαρυούντ’ ευφράδειες και δημηγορίες.

— Γιατί ν’ αρχίσει μονομιάς αυτή η ανησυχία
κ’ η σύγχυσις. (Τα πρόσωπα τι σοβαρά που εγίναν).
Γιατί αδειάζουν γρήγορα οι δρόμοι κ’ η πλατέες,
κι όλοι γυρνούν στα σπίτια τους πολύ συλλογισμένοι;

Γιατί ενύχτωσε κ’ οι βάρβαροι δεν ήλθαν.
Και μερικοί έφθασαν απ’ τα σύνορα,
και είπανε πως βάρβαροι πια δεν υπάρχουν.

Και τώρα τι θα γένουμε χωρίς βαρβάρους.
Οι άνθρωποι αυτοί ήσαν μια κάποια λύσις.

Waiting for the Barbarians

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What laws can the senators make now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

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

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
replete 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,
and 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 come forward 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 restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
And some who have just returned from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)

This poem was written in 1898 and printed in 1904. In 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 ‘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.


I have often used this poem to illustrate lectures on the need for Christian-Muslim dialogue. But it is true that in many political societies, external political threats are imagined and created to deflect attention from internal political issues that the authorities are unwilling to deal with.

Far-right groups know that it is cheap to stir up hatred and racism among working class and poor people who feel they have lost out and are carrying too much of the burden in economically challenged and straitened times. It costs nothing financially, but the costs socially are terrifying.

On the other hand, it costs much to build hospitals, to provide health care and social welfare, to care for immigrants who have no families to fall back on for additional support and care. But in the long-term, we create happier and healthier societies, and the pay-off is immense, is incalculable.

Θερμοπύλες (Thermopylae)

The manuscript of the poem Θερμοπύλες (Thermopyles) by Cavafy

Θερμοπύλες

Τιμή σ’ εκείνους όπου στην ζωή των
ώρισαν και φυλάγουν Θερμοπύλες.
Ποτέ από το χρέος μη κινούντες•
δίκαιοι κ’ ίσιοι σ’ όλες των τες πράξεις,
αλλά με λύπη κιόλας κ’ ευσπλαχνία•
γενναίοι οσάκις είναι πλούσιοι, κι όταν
είναι πτωχοί, πάλ’ εις μικρόν γενναίοι,
πάλι συντρέχοντες όσο μπορούνε•
πάντοτε την αλήθεια ομιλούντες,
πλην χωρίς μίσος για τους ψευδομένους.

Και περισσότερη τιμή τούς πρέπει
όταν προβλέπουν (και πολλοί προβλέπουν)
πως ο Εφιάλτης θα φανεί στο τέλος,
κ’ οι Μήδοι επί τέλους θα διαβούνε.

Thermopylae

Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.

And even more honour is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that in the end Ephialtis will make his appearance,
that the Medes will break through after all.

A poster for the movie 300

This poem recalls the Battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans and their allies stood their ground against the overwhelming Persian force. Their stand bought enough time for Sparta and the rest of the Greek states to muster a proper force to resist the Persians.

The episode has been popularised recently in the movie 300.

However, Cavafy’s poem takes us away from the battleground and offers a set of guides on how to lead a truly virtuous life. He presents a series of ideals and values to live by, including: being constant to the principle of rightness; being compassionate and generous no matter our circumstances are; being truthful in all we do; not hating those who do not live by the same principles as we hold; not begrudge those who wrong us or who have a different perspective on life.

These virtues, values and principles are at the heart of all major religions. The final four lines are disturbing to read, though. They tell us that despite all we do, there are going to be setbacks, with the potential for failure.

Ephiatis the goatherd betrayed the Spartans by leading the Persians through an old trail that allowed them to encircle and outflank the Spartans. This led to their ultimate defeat of the Spartans by the Persians and their allies the Medes.

Yet, in life, even we realise that are going to encounter setbacks and defeats, we must fight on anyway and prepare for them because it is part of our duty to do so. We must live by our principles and our values.

In the face of economic humiliation at the hands of others, and in the face of values being eroded by racists and far-right thugs, how do Greeks fund the courage today to maintain values and standards, and to face-up to the real challenge of maintaining a society with true values?

Όσο μπορείς (As much as you can)

‘Too much contact with the world?’ … looking across Iraklion and out to the Mediterranean (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Όσο μπορείς

Κι αν δεν μπορείς να κάμεις την ζωή σου όπως την θέλεις,
τούτο προσπάθησε τουλάχιστον
όσο μπορείς: μην την εξευτελίζεις
μες στην πολλή συνάφεια του κόσμου,
μες στες πολλές κινήσεις κι ομιλίες.

Μην την εξευτελίζεις πιαίνοντάς την,
γυρίζοντας συχνά κ' εκθέτοντάς την,
στων σχέσεων και των συναναστροφών
την καθημερινήν ανοησία,
ως που να γίνει σα μιά ξένη φορτική.

As much as you can

And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Try not to degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social events and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

This poem, ‘As Much As You Can,’ begins mid-conversation. What do you think the other person in the conversation has just said before the poet speaks?

“Eat, drink and merry”?

“You’ve got to live life for today”?

You’ve got to follow your dreams”?

The poet puts himself in the place of the person who replies. He is resigned to his living his own, less-glamorous, life, but for a good reason rather than because he couldn’t be bothered.

Which person in the conversation is appealing to a higher self?

Which person has an air of urgency?

Which of us is not having a life different than the one we want?

Everyone at some stage of life is living with disappointment. We feel lonely, or tired, or sick, or unloved, or unrecognised. Or we may feel we have never realised our potential or our ambitions.

We may feel we are living in the wrong place or in the wrong family.

Although the poem is built on a series of negatives, its message is not negative. To all of us, though, Cavafy says: “Your life, as you are experiencing it now can still be beautiful, if you want it to be.”

After all, Cavafy was never famous in his own lifetime and did not seem interested in pursuing fame and recognition.

Η Πόλις (‘The City’)

Sailing for another city? A view across the old town of Rethymnon from the Venetian Fortezza (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Following a conversation recently with someone who was contemplating moving from one appointment to another, but perhaps for the wrong reasons, I found myself re-reading Cavafy’s poem ‘The City.’

Cavafy meant his readers to read this poem first, as though ‘The City’ is a gateway by which we may enter his works. Yet none of his poems is as simple or as complicated as ‘The City,’ and despite its simplicity, it continues to baffle translators.

Some verses in this poem simply cannot be rendered in other languages; in other cases the word order loses its poetic quality, its simplicity or its meaning when it turned around in translations. There are problems too with voice, syntax and double-meanings, and the way in which Cavafy interweaves demotic Greek and Katharevousa Greek.

In the Greek, the desperate relentlessness of the poem is represented in the way the rhyming couplets and the iambic rhythms churn together.

In the original, all the rhymes are full rhymes, and the pattern is a-b-b-c-c-d-d-a. Because it is an inflected language, Greek generates rhymes more naturally and abundantly than English. The first and last line of each stanza rhymes variations of the words for “sea” (thalassa) and for “wasted” (xalassa), clamps the poem shut into its own locked labyrinth.

The ‘city’ that the poet cannot escape has become an albatross around his neck. The city represents his secrets, his sexuality, his heritage, or whatever cross he has had to carry with him throughout his life. He cannot leave Alexandria, nor is Alexandria going to leave him as long he lives.

Perhaps the poet himself is regretting his life of failure and is blaming the city for this failure, wondering whether another city would have been more rewarding. But he realises that it is not the city that is to blame, for all cities will be the same.

If we move from one place to another, from one relationship to another, from one job to another, from one parish to another, without dealing with the problems we have been faced with, we move for the wrong reasons and we take our unresolved problems and our unanswered questions with us, so that we find we are living in the same place, in the same parish, in the same relationship, and our dreams keep turning to nightmares, locking us in so that we keep repeating our mistakes and our failures continue to confront and to haunt us.

Η Πόλις

Είπες• «Θα πάγω σ’ άλλη γη, θα πάγω σ’ άλλη θάλασσα.
Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.
Κάθε προσπάθεια μου μια καταδίκη είναι γραφτή•
κ’ είν’ η καρδιά μου — σαν νεκρός — θαμένη.
Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμόν αυτόν θα μένει.
Όπου το μάτι μου γυρίσω, όπου κι αν δω
ερείπια μαύρα της ζωής μου βλέπω εδώ,
που τόσα χρόνια πέρασα και ρήμαξα και χάλασα.»

Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς•
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις—
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Έτσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες.

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried as though it were something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I happen to look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you. You will walk
the same streets, grow old in the same neighbourhoods,
will turn gray in these same houses.
You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere else in the world.

(Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Ένας Γέρος (‘An old man’)

Coffee for one? Or two? Or three? A table on the corner of Ethn. Anistasseos and Tsouderon streets in Rethymnon on a summer afternoon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

Ένας Γέρος

Στου καφενείου του βοερού το μέσα μέρος
σκυμένος στο τραπέζι κάθετ’ ένας γέρος•
με μιαν εφημερίδα εμπρός του, χωρίς συντροφιά.

Και μες των άθλιων γηρατειών την καταφρόνια
σκέπτεται πόσο λίγο χάρηκε τα χρόνια
που είχε και δύναμι, και λόγο, κ’ εμορφιά.

Ξέρει που γέρασε πολύ• το νοιώθει, το κυττάζει.
Κ’ εν τούτοις ο καιρός που ήταν νέος μοιάζει
σαν χθες. Τι διάστημα μικρό, τι διάστημα μικρό.

Και συλλογιέται η Φρόνησις πως τον εγέλα•
και πως την εμπιστεύονταν πάντα — τι τρέλλα! —
την ψεύτρα που έλεγε• «Aύριο. Έχεις πολύν καιρό.»

Θυμάται ορμές που βάσταγε• και πόση
χαρά θυσίαζε. Την άμυαλή του γνώσι
κάθ’ ευκαιρία χαμένη τώρα την εμπαίζει.

.... Μα απ’ το πολύ να σκέπτεται και να θυμάται
ο γέρος εζαλίσθηκε. Κι αποκοιμάται
στου καφενείου ακουμπισμένος το τραπέζι.

An old man

At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone,
a newspaper in front of him.

And in the miserable banality of old age
he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, eloquence, and looks.

He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
So brief an interval, so very brief.

And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,
how he always believed — what madness —
that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”

He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his senseless caution.

But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Some time ago, I posted on my Facebook page a video clip illustrating Constantine Cavafy’s poem, An old man. Surprisingly, a Facebook friend posted in Greek: καλά ότι δεν ήταν μια ευτυχισμένη σκέψης για την ημέρα (“Well that’s not a happy thought for the day”).

Oh, but it is! It is important to seize the day, to take the opportunities we are given, to enjoy God’s gift of the present as a divine present.

Later, the following weekend, four of us went to lunch in La Taverna in the Italian Quarter in Dublin. And then, it was out to Skerries, for coffee in the Olive and a walk on the beach with friends from Balbriggan I had not seen for eight or nine years, even though we have kept in touch on the ’phone and at Christmas each year too.

An easterly breeze was blowing hazy cover along the coast. There was a shine off the water as we walked along the strand, up around Red Island, back around the harbour and along the North Strand, and back out onto the South Strand as far as the steps at Holmpatrick.

Despite the immediate lack of direct sunshine, the silvery reflection from the water made it a very pleasant afternoon that seemed to stretch beyond all expectations for such a late stage in autumn, and we lingered a little longer in the glow of the silver waters. It was six in the evening when I eventually headed home.

Unlike the old man in the evening of his life in Cavafy’s café, I had no regrets about the day.

You have plenty of time today. Enjoy it before you regret it.

Some reading:

Peter Bien, Three Generations of Greek Writers (Athens: Efstathiadis, 1983).
CP Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis, revised ed (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992).
CP Cavafy, The Canon, translated by Stratis Haviaras (Hermes Publishing, 2004).
Rae Dalven (trans), The Complete Poems of Cavafy (London: The Hoarth Press, 1961).
Edmund Keeley, Cavafy’s Alexandria (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996).
John Mavrogordatos, The Poems of CP Cavafy (London: Hogarth Press, 1951).
Poems by CP Cavafy, translated, from the Greek, by JC Cavafy (Ikaros, 2003).

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. These notes were prepared for an afternoon session in the Greek School, Arbour Hill, Dublin, on 24 November 2013.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Having enjoyed, many years ago, reading the Alexandria Quartet, we found our way (with some difficulty!) to Cafavy's apartment when we were in Alexandria a few years ago. Certainly worth a visit. I think William Dalrymple may have mentioned him in one of his books, too.