Mixing History and Desire: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy
THE CAVAFY ARCHIVE
The poet Constantine Cavafy was a cosmopolitan by both birth and inclination. His parents were Constantinople Greeks of what was then known as "good family"; by the time their youngest son was born in 1863, they were settled in Alexandria, Egypt, prosperous pillars of a thriving community. But after his father's death in 1870, the family fortunes failed and Cavafy's mother took her sons to live for a few years near her late husband's relatives in Liverpool and London. (It's said that afterward Cavafy's Greek retained a faint English inflection.) The dimly remembered life of parties and servants was gone; in the early 1880s the British bombardment of Alexandria destroyed the family home. By the time the novelist E.M. Forster met Cavafy in 1918, he was living in a small apartment on the run-down Rue Lepsius. Alexandria, wrote Forster, "founded upon cotton with the concurrence of onions and eggs," was "scarcely a city of the soul."
For Cavafy, it was home. Living outside the young Greek state among Egyptians, Greeks and Jews, he could remain committed to a fading, idealized Hellenism free from the crude taint of nationalism and borders. He told Forster that the Greeks and the English were almost exactly alike, except for one crucial difference: "We Greeks have lost our capital--and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital."
By "capital" he meant both Constantinople and a less tangible inheritance, one that lies close to the bone of his precise and parsimonious work. All his life, he was drawn to what was lost: forgotten Greek kingdoms on the edge of the Roman empire, backwaters of Byzantium, beautiful boys glimpsed once or briefly held and never seen again. "The memory of that long and haphazard pursuit," writes Daniel Mendelsohn,
speaks of a certain kind of relation to the rest of the world: experience rejected in favor of remembrance, the center rejected in favor of the margin. A sense of the beautiful hovering just beyond your reach, to be reflected upon and considered. The reflection becomes, in its own way, another kind of possessing.
Or, to transpose that feeling to the political realm,
Here was a culture...that had created a great romance out of a great defeat, a civilization that had been able to endure loss and real privation because it believed in its own myth of lost beauty, the possession of which, however brief and long ago, elevated the lovely and effete vanquished far above the crass, practical victors.
These Cavafian meditations are not from Mendelsohn's excellent introduction to the Collected Poems (which he has translated with a slim volume of unfinished work, appearing here for the first time in English) but from his graceful memoir The Elusive Embrace, published ten years ago. The first passage glosses an early pursuit of Mendelsohn's own; the second describes not Greece but the American South, where Mendelsohn studied classics as an undergraduate. (His family memoir, The Lost, evokes another vanished world, that of his European relatives who died in the Holocaust.) Together, they begin to suggest why this eloquent critic felt compelled to learn modern Greek and to enter as deeply as he could into Cavafy's world of stoic longing and elusive memory, intense desire and cool, appraising intellection.
Cavafy did not publish a book in his lifetime; he preferred to distribute his poems to a few close friends in pamphlets printed at his own expense, partly in order to avoid the corruptions of the marketplace. But long before Forster "discovered" him, he was consciously writing in a cosmopolitan tradition. As well as Robert Browning, whose dramatic monologues inform Cavafy's own, Tennyson, Keats, Wilde, Emerson and Whitman all left traces in his work; Baudelaire and the French Parnassians were another important influence. After Cavafy's death in 1933, his sensibility began to color the work of other poets, among them Auden, Brecht, Brodsky, Milosz and Montale, as well as the Americans Robert Hass, Louise Glück, James Merrill, Rachel Hadas and Mark Doty. It was Auden who brought Cavafy's work to a broad American readership by introducing Rae Dalven's translation of the Complete Poems in 1961: "I can think of poems," he wrote, "which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently, or perhaps not written at all." The first edition of what became the canonical English Cavafy, a clean, transparent Collected Poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, appeared in 1975. The past five years have produced a flurry of new versions, by Aliki Barnstone, Alan Boegehold, Stratis Haviaras, Evangelos Sachperoglou and Avi Sharon. Why, then, do we need another?