Wednesday 12 September 2018

CP Cavafy and the essence of history

by Antonia Senior

I have written before about historical fiction in the form of poems, and how I value them (and, poorly, turn my pen to them). This month, I have been re-reading the poetry of Constantine Cavafy, and contemplating his austere brilliance.

The reason for the return to Cavafy was a book which landed on my reviewer's desk. What's Left of the Night is a novel by celebrated Greek poet, Ersi Sotiropoulos. Set in 1897 it follows the young Cavafy over the course of three momentous days in Paris. Not much happens, and everything happens. The young poet wanders Paris, interrogating himself. Who am I? What do I believe? How can I best say what I believe? And that question that anyone who has ever written a word for the public eye must and should have asked themselves: am I worth being read?

The book is wonderful, and my review will appear, all things being well, in The Times one week on Saturday. It is niche, and despite my rave words will doubtless sell far fewer copies than dozens of dreary, mediocre books called Watching You (with BIG Twist), or Is Woman's Husband Actually Evil? or Scmaltzy Crap about Ditzy Woman with a Big Heart, or whatever the latest tedious bandwagon is. So here is the link to What's Left of the Night so you can pre-order it:

Image result for cp cavafy
CP Cavafy

But let's talk about Cavafy. He was born in Alexandria in 1863 to Greek parents. His family made money, then spectacularly lost it and the young Cavafy lived in Constantinople for a time and in England. He spent most of his life in Alexandria, where he lived an unremarkable life as a civil servant. He was homosexual, and his poetry is infused with erotic charge - he is unashamed but stifled by the world's mores. Here he is in He Asked about the Quality. A young man has seen a youth through the window of a shop, and goes inside:

He asked about the quality of the handkerchiefs
and how much they cost, his voice choking,
almost silenced by desire.
And the answers came back the same way,
distracted, the voice hushed,
offering hidden consent.
They kept on talking about the merchandise—but
the only purpose: that their hands might touch
over the handkerchiefs, that their faces, their lips,
might move close together as though by chance—
a moment’s meeting of limb against limb.
Quickly, secretly, so the shopowner sitting at the back
wouldn’t realize what was going on.

All poems quoted are translated by Edmund Keeley/Phillip Sherrard  and reproduced from

But it's Cavafy's historical poems that concern us here. They are primarily focused on Ancient Greece and Rome. They take a theme it could take an entire novel to explore, and distil it to its essence in that almost deadpan style of his. (Ersi Sotiropoulis is brilliant on Cavafy's quest for a unique and personal style. He rejects lyricism as flippant ornamentation. Rhyme and metre are a poet's crutch - they let him/her avoid actually saying anything.)

The poems are Janus-like, in the manner of all good historical fiction: they look backwards, and in doing so, tell us something about ourselves, and our immediate present. There are three layers of history, in effect: the past event, Cavafy's present and our own present - and the poems speak to each of these. This alone, I think, would prove their greatness.

There are so many to choose from to illustrate his layered brilliance. I have chosen two, which I offer without commentary - you don't need my banal witterings. The first is specific: it's addressed to Mark Antony on losing to Augustus.

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. 

The second, Waiting for the Barbarians, is one of his most famous poems. I offer it again without commentary - bar the thought that it's the most interesting piece about Brexit I have read in months.

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. 

1 comment:

Carol Drinkwater said...

Thank you for this, Antonia, I am a fan of Cavafy's poetry. I must go back to it.