C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems
translated, with introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn
Knopf, $35.00 (cloth)

C.P. Cavafy: The Unfinished Poems
translated, with introduction and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn
Knopf, $35.00 (cloth)

My obsession with C.P. Cavafy, the definitive poet of modern Greek, started almost 40 years ago. Neither classicist nor philologist, certainly not a systematic scholar of anything, I was captivated by the poems that allowed immediate access, such as the famous “Waiting for the Barbarians,” where the irony of the ending—“And now what’s to become of us without barbarians. / Those people were a solution of a sort”—loses none of its power for its lack of subtlety.

I puzzled over other poems, too: what could I make of the music in “The God Abandons Anthony?” What was it, and where was it going? I looked for answers. As histories of the classical world, of the Hellenized Levant, of the transition from paganism to Christianity, and of Byzantium presented themselves to me in haphazard ways, I felt compelled to read them simply because they might help me understand a Cavafy poem. When the opportunity came to study modern Greek, I jumped at it. A large part of my reading life revolved around Cavafy. Many have been equally fascinated.

I know bookstore clerks, the assistant manager of a grocery store, and a professor of mathematics who can quote part of the almost canonical Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard translation of “Ithaka”: “As you set out for Ithaka / hope the voyage is a long one, / full of adventure, / full of discovery.” After Maurice Tempelsman read this translation at the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the poem assumed a special place in the American national story. It might be impossible and unnecessary for a new translation to supplant that. Still, Daniel Mendelsohn’s new C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems has provided context and versions of the poems that deepen and sometimes fundamentally alter our sense of many of them, and of the poet himself.

Cavafy was born in 1863 and lived most of his life in the diaspora community in Alexandria. He spent his early years in England, where he received a formative education. Indeed, Cavafy has done well in English. We English-speaking philhellenes enjoy the report, perhaps apocryphal, that Cavafy spoke Greek with an English accent until the day he died. As a teenager in the late 1870s, he wrote poems in English, a few of which have survived, and which Mendelsohn includes at the end of this new Collected Poems. Although these English poems are sometimes amusing in the way poems by precocious children can be (“Good-bye to Therápia & joys of the hotel— / Good dinners that make you exultingly swell, / Good beds that refresh you from the toil of the day / Fine sights near which you’d wish ever to stay”), they give little indication of the brilliance that would follow in a couple of decades. Some of his first serious poems in Greek were translated by his older brother shortly after their composition, and as Mendelsohn shows us in his essential notes, Cavafy cared deeply about their appropriate representation in English.

During World War I, E.M. Forster, already a successful novelist, was stationed with the Red Cross in Egypt, where he befriended Cavafy and became an admirer of his poetry. He wrote travel essays about Alexandria, one of which includes the first significant critical assessment of Cavafy’s work in English, as well as quick translations of three poems. In that essay Forster wrote the following characterization of the Greek poet, which is appropriate and catchy but has been a bit overused during the last eight decades: “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe. His arms are extended, possibly.” Some 25 years after Cavafy’s died on his 70th birthday, Lawrence Durrell began publishing the novels of his Alexandria Quartet, in which eroticism is explicitly connected to the quieter but even more pervasive sensuality of Cavafy’s poetry, which attracted a larger English-language audience in part due to Durrell’s success in the early 1960s. The translation by Rae Dalven was the one most available at the time, and had the good fortune of including an extraordinary introduction by W. H. Auden.

Auden admits to being influenced by Cavafy (“I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all”), yet he also admits, “I do not know a word of Modern Greek.” His access had only been through translation. So the influence had not happened because of the way Cavafy used the sounds of his language. And it did not happen because of Cavafy’s use of simile or metaphor or other figures of speech, because he famously did not use them often. Auden seems reluctant to acknowledge the nature of that influence:

Something I can only call, most inadequately, a tone of voice, a personal speech. I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could have written it.

It is almost as if (contradicting one of the conventional bromides poets use to comfort themselves) Auden admits that with this poet, at least, the poetry is exactly what survives the translation.

Daniel Mendelsohn insists that Cavafy’s unique perspective ‘allowed him to see history with a lover’s eye, and desire with a historian’s eye.’

Perhaps the most significant addition to our understanding of Cavafy offered in Mendelsohn’s translations is a definition of that “tone of voice,” that “personal speech” that Auden puzzled over. Cavafy has often been understood as a poet with two themes. First, he wrote historical poems about the wilder corners of the Greek world, the kingdoms that fractured across the Near East after the death of Alexander or the outlying regions of the Byzantine Empire a millennium later. Second, he wrote deeply erotic poems about homosexual love, often set in the darker streets of his beloved Alexandria. These poems seem to be very quiet, yet are filled with a painful longing. They have the ambience, the atmosphere, of desire. Though occasionally one poem would include both elements, Cavafy was often read in two different ways. Mendelsohn calls this “an invidious distinction . . . that obscures our sense of his large project.” All the way through these two volumes—from the brilliant introductions to the notes, and clearly in the translations themselves—Mendelsohn insists that even the erotic element in this poetry is contained in memory, that for Cavafy the “one great subject, the element that unites virtually all of his work, is Time.” The “unique perspective” of this poetry “allowed him to see history with a lover’s eye, and desire with a historian’s eye.” That is what Auden saw in these poems: the obsession of desire directed toward everything that moved this poet, including those who lived through distant historical moments.

Mendelsohn’s description of and insistence on the formal aspects of Cavafy’s poetry are also welcome. Next to Cavafy in the original, I have one French and seven English translations. Although a couple of them make reference to the formal elements in some of the poems, only Mendelsohn’s edition tries consistently to capture something of the rhythm and rhyme that characterize many, perhaps most, of the originals. I remember hearing this the first time a Cavafy poem was read to me in Greek, long before I knew much more of the language than efharisto—“thank you.” A young chemist in Athens read at my request one of my favorite poems, “Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340.” This is the longest poem that Cavafy published, and concerns the end of the classical, pagan world, just before the final conquest of Christianity. The speaker is a pagan, and his friend, Myris, is a Christian, although for much of their youth they had enjoyed the same wild pleasures of Alexandria. I knew the poem in the direct and unadorned 1975 translation of Keeley and Sherrard, and loved it in that version (as I still do), and was moved and frightened by the last three lines:

I rushed out of their horrible house,
rushed away before my memory of Myris
could be captured, could be perverted by their Christianity.

When my Athenian friend read it to me, I heard more play in the words, repeated end sounds that seemed close to rhyme, and a sense in sound that accented the great bitterness of this ending. It was a revelation.

In this particular case, I do not think Mendelsohn’s version (“I flew out of their horrible house, / and quickly left before their Christianity / could get hold of, could alter, the memory of Myres”) adds much to Keeley and Sherrard’s, nor do I think it absolutely must. In other instances, Mendelsohn’s prosodic concerns do add considerably to our understanding of Cavafy. In the relatively early poem “Walls,” which Mendelsohn discusses at length in his introduction, he not only captures the rhyming across the couplets, but also finds an unobtrusive irregular English iambic to reflect the Greek. Here it is in its entirety:

Without pity, without shame, without consideration
they’ve built around me enormous, towering walls.
And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:
because I had so many things to do out there.
O while they built the walls, why didn’t I look out?
But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they’ve shut me from the world without.

In his discussion of this poem, Mendelsohn introduces us to the complications of Cavafy’s diction. After Greece was liberated from four centuries of Ottoman rule, the creation of the nation-state made important political demands on the language. A highly artificial language called katharevousa attempted to marry the spoken language with informed guesses of what might have been the sound of the classical language: this was imposed as the official language of the new government. It functioned almost as a second tongue forced onto public life, while the demotic, modern Greek was spoken by everyone in their daily lives. This split came to mirror political differences as well as aesthetic choices and was a fundamental political issue as Greece entered the twentieth century. Cavafy, perhaps because in Alexandria he was removed from the nation-state, was able to use these two levels of language for his own ironies and his own music.

Although a few poems feel too fragmentary, for those of us who love Cavafy, even they come as unexpected gifts.

Mendelsohn tries to make the case that we can find some equivalent of this in English by using words of Latinate origin in opposition to words that came to us from Anglo-Saxon. Although I am not convinced by his comparison—the Greek differences carry the weight and implications of political imposition, while the English differences sometimes simply indicate pretension—and I do think some of his translations get needlessly complicated because of it, the translation of “Walls” is a very successful example. Here all the prosodic choices and the levels of diction combine to make the most interesting version of this poem on my shelf.

• • •

In The Unfinished Poems, meanwhile, Mendelsohn provides English-speaking readers with something entirely new. Shortly before his death, Cavafy complained that he had 25 poems yet to finish, and for a long time his protestation was thought to be nothing more than the cry of a dying man. But, just as he has been fortunate in his English translators, Cavafy was fortunate in the preservation of his manuscripts. The late George Savidis, who edited several Cavafy editions, assumed the task of preserving and collating the Cavafy archive, a task that has been continued by his son Manolis. In 1963 Savidis announced that versions of these poems, now numbering 30, really did exist, and Italian scholar Renata Lavagnini began the search for usable texts. She published the Greek version in 1994, which includes extensive notes and photocopies of the original manuscripts. It is clear from those that Lavagnini performed a heroic deed, combining the techniques of a textual scholar with the intuition of a papyrologist.

Mendelsohn’s translations of the unfinished poems are the first in English. Although a few poems feel too fragmentary, for those of us who love Cavafy, even they come as unexpected gifts. There are poems that resume the engagement with historical characters—the Ptolemies, Julian the Apostate, Apollonius of Tyana—that the poet had initiated when still young. And there are smaller poems that capture those exquisite erotic moments and connect them to history or even, as in “Birth of a Poem,” to the actual making of the work of art:

One night when the beautiful light of the moon
poured into my room . . . imagination, taking
something from life: some very scanty thing—
a distant scene, a distant pleasure—
brought a vision all its own of flesh,
a vision all its own to a sensual bed . . .

Once again, imagination becomes both memory and Eros in a small moment that could be a touchstone for our new understanding of Cavafy. And the poem is formed from that mix. The memory here seems to be clearly personal, yet for those who remember the more famous “finished” poem, “Caesarion,” in which Cavafy imagines the son of Caesar and Cleopatra appearing in his study (“And so fully did I imagine you / that yesterday, late at night, when the lamp / went out—I deliberately let it go out— / I dared to think you came into my room”), the distinctions between the personal and the historical disappear.

There are other poems in this collection, such as the wonderful “And Above All Cynegirus,” that are so dependent on their references that all but a few classicists would need Mendelsohn’s extensive notes to catch anything of the jokes and ironies that motivated Cavafy. But the fact that we need these references to fully enter into the poems should not cheapen our appreciation of the poems themselves. Just the opposite.

The expansive notes in these volumes will save all future Cavafy readers in English from the piles of supplementary reading I undertook. The next generation will not have to struggle through the uncertainties of reference, because Mendelsohn has provided the sources, given the long quotations from Edward Gibbon and from much older authors. The poems still make demands on readers, but these demands will not seem crushing. And for those who have known the poet for a long time but have not had the historical knowledge or references at their fingertips, Mendelsohn’s notes will open up old poems in new ways.

With his passionate reading of this poet-historian, his explanations of the formal elements of modern Greek verse, his versions of previously unknown poems, his notes, and mostly his meticulous translations, Mendelsohn has created not only an essential guide to Constantine Cavafy for English-speaking readers, but has likely shaped our understanding of the greatest writer of modern Greek for a couple of generations to come.