Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Constantine Cavafy

Since I will be on vacation in Greece and Turkey while this is posted, it seems fitting to include a poet writing in Greek. Constantine Cavafy was of Greek Orthodox heritage and spent most of his life in Alexandria.

Cavafy is much admired, but I have a hard time warming up him. I find his poetry rather inert. Many of his poems are set in historical Greece and Rome. The juxtaposition between the classical settings and the contemporary milieu in which he wrote ought to create its own frisson, but instead, the words meander listlessly across the page. This might, of course, be a weakness in the translations and not in what Cavafy himself wrote.

Cavafy’s lesser poems are resoundingly corny, which I find a touch reassuring. Who among us doesn’t have some godawful poem about, I don’t know dew-touched flowers crammed into the back corner of our desks?

I rather like this poem, though I don’t think it’s among his most famous.

“The Rest I Will Tell to Those Down to Hades”

“Indeed,” said the proconsul, closing the book,
“this line is beautiful and very true.
Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.
How much we’ll tell down there, how much,
and how very different we’ll appear.
What we protect here like sleepless guards,
wounds and secrets locked inside us,
protect with such great anxiety day after day,
we’ll disclose freely and clearly down there.”

“You might add,” said the sophist, half smiling,
“if they talk about things like that down there,
if they bother about them any more.”

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

I own the Keeley/Sherrard translation. I haven’t read this new translation by Daniel Mendelsohn, but it’s reputed to be very good; I really love Mendelsohn’s prose nonfiction.

Cavafy on Wikipedia

Cavafy on

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