Collected Poems, C.P. Cavafy, translated by Edmund Keeley and Phillip Sherrard
Back in 2015 I reviewed the Penguin Classics little black book edition of Avi Sharon’s translation of Cavafy poems. It was an excerpt from a longer Penguin Classics edition and whetted my taste for Cavafy.
I talk quite a lot in my 2015 post (here) of the different Cavafy translations currently on offer: the Sharon, the Daniel Mendelsohn and the Keeley/Sherrard. Of the three it was the Keeley/Sherrard I decided to press on with.
Every translation involves choices between accuracy to the text of the original and accuracy to its spirit. There’s no right answer to that dilemma: just sometimes the right translation for a particular reader. I decided that the Keeley/Sherrard translation was the right one for me.
Cavafy’s themes as a poet were typically melancholic reveries of past desire; poems inspired by or drawing upon Greek myth and history; and to an extent certain technical challenges which are difficult to translate and even more difficult for me to understand. Not everything fits those boxes, but they’re a decent guide as to what to expect.
For me, and I think for most readers, it’s the personal meditations on desire that are most effective. I have a decent(ish) grasp of Classical Greek myth and history but not at anything like the level of familiarity Cavafy had. His poems drawing on the lives of classical figures are (I understand) often technically impressive but the resonances are lost to a reader who doesn’t get the references.
Here’s one of the more accessible examples of the classically inspired poems:
THE GLORY OF THE PTOLEMIES
I’m Lagides, king – through my power and wealth
complete master of the art of pleasure.
There’s no Macedonian, no barbarian, equal to me
or even approaching me. The son of Selefkos
is really a joke with his cheap lechery.
But if you’re looking for other things, note this too:
My city’s the greatest preceptor, queen of the Greek world,
genius of all knowledge, of every art.
Like many of the poems in this edition this one comes with explanatory notes in an aftersection. Here they read:
First version written August 1896
Rewritten May 1911, and published September 1911
The metrical pattern is 15-14-14-15-14-14-16-12 syllables, rhymed abbaccc.
Cavafy does not specify the identity of the Lagid (i.e., a Ptolemy king of Egypt) and of the Selefkid (i.e. king of Syria); the period would, however, be between 323 and 221 B.C.
I described that one as more accessible because even without any idea who Lagides and Selefkid are (and even the translator doesn’t know that) it’s pretty clear what kind of people they are. With others the clue as to what they’re like lies in knowing who they are, and if you don’t the poem risks leaving you pretty cold (or did me anyway).
There are notable exceptions. The tremendous “Waiting for the Barbarians” (which is a bit long to reproduce here but can be found at this link) works whether you know the event which inspired it or not and has a killer of a punchline. Others bridge the gap between Cavafy’s two styles, as here where the Classical and the personal intertwine:
That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
their souls still keep your memory.
When an August dawn wakes over you,
your atmosphere is potent with their life,
and sometimes a young ethereal figure
indistinct, in rapid flight,
wings across your hills.
Regret is a key Cavafy theme. In most cases it’s personal regret: a memory of a past love that couldn’t grow because it had to be furtive, hidden (Cavafy was gay). There’s a strong sense of loss in Cavafy’s work, both in the loss of the greatness that was Greece and the loss of the love of young men each met in a café or shop and briefly loved in some rented tenement room.
In some cases Cavafy goes beyond regret and loss, and instead explores a sense of sheer waste as here in one of my favourites:
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 – like something dead – lies buried.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.
This is a counterpoint to Cavafy’s possibly most famous poem Ithaca (read here by Sean Connery with a Vangelis soundtrack no less! I’m not actually that fond of the poem but for many it’s a favourite). In Ithaca the journey is the destination. Here the journey is pointless as the “you” will carry their own devastation with them. On reflection, those messages are more connected than I first thought, since in each your destination carries only the meaning you bring to it.
Incidentally, the endnotes reveal that, in the Greek, The City has “elaborate metrical patterns” and “mostly homophonous” rhymes. For those interested in the architecture of poetry my impression is that Cavafy is actually pretty sophisticated, but unfortunately I’m not so it’s hard for me to comment further.
I’ll turn now to Cavafy’s more personal poems and the ones which for me are most effective. Cavafy is a poet of extraordinary sensuality, and his poems of loves lost combine the physicality of desire with the tenuousness of memory.
Here’s two examples:
AT THE CAFÉ DOOR
Something they said beside me
made me look towards the café door
and I saw that lovely body which seemed
as though Eros in his mastery had fashioned it,
joyfully shaping its well-formed limbs,
moulding its tall build,
shaping its face tenderly,
and leaving, with a touch of the fingers,
a particular impression on the brow, the eyes, the lips.
IN THE EVENING
It wouldn’t have lasted long anyway –
years of experience make that clear.
But fate did put an end to it a bit abruptly.
It was soon over, that wonderful life.
Yet how strong the scents were,
what a magnificent bed we lay in,
what pleasures we gave our bodies.
An echo from my days of indulgence,
an echo from those days come back to me,
something from the fire of the young life we shared:
I picked up a letter again,
read it over and over till the light faded.
Then, sad, I went out on the balcony,
went out to change my thoughts at least by seeing
something of this city I love,
a little movement in the streets, in the shops.
At the Café Door is a personal favourite of mine, but In the Evening is strong too with its emphasis on “scents” and playful repetition of the word “echo”. Café of course brings back those Classical Greek themes with a light reference there to Eros.
In Café there isn’t even an affair. The narrator simply sees someone beautiful and for a moment is transported by their sheer presence. It’s a could-have-been, or perhaps not even that but simply an admiration.
In the Evening by contrast is a classic Cavafy reflection in age on a passion of youth. There’s a lot of poems exploring that theme and they’re generally among the strongest. There’s a sense of youth as a fire and the long years after as a sort of wasteland. Relationships are doomed by illegality and desire by time.
Cavafy’s poetry is melancholic and beautiful and this is still I think a definitive collection. It’s far from the only strong choice – as was commented under my last Cavafy piece there’s something of a Cavafy industry – but at a little over 200 pages it’s portable and digestible and the translations are lively and evocative.
One thing that I would recommend with Cavafy is spacing the poems out. I read this collection over perhaps a two year period and it was better for that. Many authors and poets return to the same issues over and over, but when you’re reading a poetry collection the impact is diminished if you’re reading your fourth meditation on lost love or third elegy to past greatness. In this case the poetry is like brandy, you can only take so much at one sitting.
I’ll end with one final poem (I cut so many that I wanted to include here). This one because in the context of Cavafy’s life it’s both heartbreaking and prophetic. For all the problems of our time, and I know they are many, we do at least live now in the “more perfect” society he dreams of here:
For all I did and all I said
let no one try to find out who I was.
An obstacle was there distorting
the actions and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was often there
to stop me when I’d begin to speak.
From my most unnoticed actions,
my most veiled writing –
from these alone will I be understood.
But maybe it isn’t worth so much concern,
so much effort to discover who I really am.
Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely.