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The Sensuous Archaism of C.P.

Cavafy
W.H. Auden famously observed that Cavafy’s poetry seemed to survive translation remarkably well, and that
it was marked by “a tone of voice, a personal speech immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else
could possibly have written it.” That Cavafy’s poetry translates so well is at least partly a function of his unique style.
(The rest is the mystery of his genius.) Cavafy’s poetry is original, which means that he found a voice whose depth
and range was capable of absorbing the register of other voices, and making them his own: Plutarch and Gibbon,
Callimachus and Robert Browning, Baudelaire and Palladas, etc. Cavafy’s great gift is for compressing historical
narratives into dramatic monologues that illuminate a shifting epoch, or for getting at the obsessions (sexual, political,
aesthetic) that drive a life in one implacable direction: both predicaments are viewed as traps set by the psyche or by
the Parcae, and Cavafy’s tenderness is in his level, unwavering attention to the way that lives unfold and empires
expire. He is perhaps most popular today for his erotic verse, in which the Alexandrian youth in his poems seem to
have stepped right out of the Greek Anthology, and into a less accepting world that makes them vulnerable, and often
keeps them in poverty, though the same Hellenic amber immures their beautiful bodies.
The subjects of his poems often have a provocative glamour to them even in barest outline: the homoerotic
one night stand that is remembered for a lifetime, the oracular pronouncement unheeded, the talented youth prone to
self destruction, the offhand remark that indicates a crack in the imperial façade. His language is characterized by
chastened diction, avoidance of overt metaphor (you’re as likely to find one of those in Cavafy’s work as to encounter
a baby), and adjectives that are usually of the most general sort, emphasizing a flat fidelity to the facts of experience.
These are prosaic virtues whose distilled essence passes through the translator’s filter undiluted. But to limit these
works to tone of voice and narrative structure is to strip them of essential qualities of their poetry. What Auden most
likely meant by Cavafy’s unique tone was an irreducible trace element in the poet’s signature style, and not the tone
of individual poems, each of which is dependent upon intricate effects of prosody. In his deeply instructive, excellent
introduction to his new translation of Cavafy’s oeuvre, Daniel Mendelsohn reminds us that Cavafy’s poems are
“unmistakably musical”, and that one of the goals of his book is to restore some of the richness of Cavafy’s linguistic
texture through close attention to prosody, and specifically to matters of diction, rhyme, and meter.
Diction presents a special dilemma for any translator of Cavafy. An important feature of Cavafy’s language is
his skill at blending two very different registers in Modern Greek: demotic, the vernacular speech of the people, and
Katharevousa, an artificial dialect introduced in the nineteenth century by government officials, and in Cavafy’s time
consideredde rigueur for high literature, as well as for technical or legal terminology. (Patrick Leigh Fermor
describes Cavafy’s use of Katharevousa as “. . .cunningly placed bits of whalebone in the more sinuous demotic. It is
elaborate and forbidding, but it is precise.”) Mendelsohn has attempted to create a modified version of Cavafy’s
“hybrid” language by drawing on resources native to English; in particular by using high-sounding Latin terms to
evoke the ceremonious luster of Katharevousa, and gritty Anglo-Saxon words for the idiomatic demotic. Mendelsohn
himself admits that this approach is only an approximate parallel, and provides two examples of his method in the
Introduction.
In “The Seleucid’s Displeasure,” which is set in the time of the crumbling Hellenistic monarchies and the emergence
of the Roman Empire, the Seleucid monarch Ptolemy VI is on his way to Rome in order to appeal for aid. Ptolemy
refuses to appear before the Romans in his formal attire (as another Seleucid monarch believes he should), but
chooses instead to dress as a beggar, setting aside his kingly dignity in a shrewd acknowledgment that there’s more
to gain by appearing shabby. For Mendelsohn, the force of the passages hinges, primarily, on the shift from the
classical-byzantine word epaiteia, which he translates as “mendicant”, to the demotic zondanevo, which he renders
as “to beg:”

. “they have at bottom”). We have only Standard English on one side and regional dialects on the other. regardless of whether or not the word choices fit the macaronic crossword puzzle (“Gaze on. Mendelsohn rises to meet this challenge in his brilliant solution for the ending of Cavafy’s very great poem.) and Mendelsohn is right in responding to Auden’s caution as direct challenge. and then. and brutalized by the imperial forces at history’s command. its arch-mandarin stiffness seems arbitrarily inserted rather than emerging as part of the established speech pattern. so that he can buy the elegant clothes he longs for. cut from Wordsworth’s great sonnet on the grandeur of evening and pasted into Cavafy’s poem about dark Alexandrian alleys and constricted lives. though “mendicant” is redolent of the formal starch of Katharevousa. like a prop for a Greek drama. . solution. . by its very nature. Here’s how the poem ends in Mendelsohn’s version: And so fully did I imagine you that yesterday. and it is impossible for translation to reproduce this stylistic effect.9). “Days of 1909. I ask myself whether glorious Alexandria possessed a a kid more perfect than he — for all that he was lost: in youth antique more times beauteous. and more verbally active. the verbal exigencies and energies necessitated by the voice. In the second example (quoted above). and the word has become so common its force is almost innocuous (“I begged my landlord to give me an extra week to pay the rent. and agori. but has been lowered in from above. “Beauteous” feels more like pastiche. and the same is true in verse — unless that kind of speech had been somehow prepared for by the poem. when the lamp went out — I deliberately let it go out — .In the second example from the Introduction.” But verse translation is. as easily as turning a seedy corner in Alexandria. he was murdered (and possibly raped) by the henchmen of Octavius. is a bit too blandly colloquial to stand out from the other colloquial phrases around it (“knew his business”. i.” which is concerned with a figure marginalized by history.”) Part of the problem is that English is moving between high and low registers all the time.” The subject of the poem is an extremely poor boy who works as a blacksmith’s shop by day.ii. In the sudden shift from the smooth-limbed vowel of “youth” to the flesh and blood consonants of “kid”. . an ancient Greek word that Mendelsohn translates as “beauteous”. But “beauteous” is problematic. Caesarion was the child of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra. and even a simple sentence can produce this effect without calling special attention to it. and grovel on thy face” Henry VI. late at night. “Caesarion. sells his body at night. as well as for the way that its spare monosyllable elicits the delicate. street urchin–like beauty of the Greek boys who Cavafy would solicit in Alexandria’s Attarine Quarter. “kid” is very effective in the anonymous. riddled with impossibilities (no two languages work in the same way. on the other hand. It is hard to imagine a convincing English speaker using words like “beauteous” and “kid” in the same sentence. designed to meet the rigid requirements of the Katharevousa / demotic grid. etc. streetwise toughness of its demotic register (“hey kid”). “sorry state”. and ’11”. one that would use the vulgar tongue to get at the vulgarity of turning the posture of abject humiliation to one of calculated prostration. The shift in diction has not been forced to the surface by the magma of prosodic (or erotic) necessity. a demotic term that he renders as “kid. In the first example. the shift in diction is between perikalles. “Beg”. It may be that Auden was correct when he said: “In English there is nothing comparable to the rivalry between demotic and purist Greek . but the verse seems to demand a more daringly inventive. Mendelsohn’s impulse is in earnest. ’10. it’s as if we had passed from the ephebes of Callimachus and Meleager to the blacksmith’s poor apprentice.

The slightly raised.) On the other hand. but diabolical in its certainty that “day” will always slant rhyme with “same”. and “Surfeit of Caesars” smacks of its fluent. it seemed to me you stood before me: as you must have been in Alexandria after it had been conquered. and all that we can “know” about “tomorrow” is that nothing will change — until it does. or superimpose. and along the tedium of their downward spiral goes the voice of this part-time clerk for “The Third Circle of Irrigation. The same things will happen. (“Surfeit-gorged. perfect in your sorrow. pale and wearied. One month passes bringing one month more. both of which are faithful to the literal meaning of the Greek (polykaisarih). then go their way. Here the monotony of “monotone day” is enacted by the metronome-like recurrence of the rhymes. and the highly artificial. and in the way this culminating phrase erotically savors the juice of its eloquent locution. a simple little tune as predetermined as the twitching hands of a clock. instead of trying to fit together. and the first and last line of each stanza rhymes variations of . and then there’s “no tomorrow.) Here. the pattern is a-b-b-c-c-d-d-a. Mendelsohn’s ear is fully alive to the full musical score of the poem.” Medelsohn’s translation of the final phrase of the last line is a provocative one. translators have used “too many Caesars” or “one too many Caesars”. History is rife with “atrocities of the tongue”. Please” to Cavafy’s prose poem “Ships. In the original. Mendelsohn picks and chooses when he will translate the rhymes as rhyme. Rhyme was important to Cavafy. as Geoffrey Hill reminds us. and as a young man he was committed to the sonnet form. the “high / low” pieces of the diction puzzle too neatly (and thereby calling attention to the fundamental incongruities of the two languages). to my ear Larkin and Cavafy share some common ground. Mendelsohn’s translation of “The City” uses rhyme with mixed results. In nearly every version of which I am aware.” This poem has a pessimistic insistence on sour prospects that’s worthy of Larkin: such days are we alive. (Although Mendelsohn’s term does not mirror the demotic register of the original. those vile men — who whispered “Surfeit of Caesars. What comes next is easy enough to know: the boredom from the day before. all the rhymes are full rhymes.I dared to think you came into my room. ineluctably sensual appetite for violence. still hoping they’d have mercy on you. the commonplace expression “too many cooks spoil the stew” is more fully available to it. such as “Dangerous” or “He Swears”. and reeking from the stews” snorts Dryden’s Juvenal.” “Sad Steps” also strikes Cavafian notes of entrapment and fated gloom. then again recur — identical moments find us. stiltedly sophisticated pitch of “surfeit” harkens back to the beginning of the poem. especially in his early poems. indistinct day follows. and a line from “Ignorance” — “for our flesh / Surrounds us with its own decisions” — could be the epigraph to many of his erotic poems.” (Although the comparison should not be pressed too far. propagandistic language the official histories use to stuff their hagiographies (“The unstinting laudations and flatteries”). in the sneeringly petulant disgust that’s there in the way its sibilance spits itself out. And tomorrow’s got to where it seems like no tomorrow.) The full horror and brutality of what happened to Caesarion is there in the glibly rising and falling rhythms of Mendelsohn’s phrase. Compare “Next. and in some places their vibrancy gives a bright new pulse to poems that might otherwise have passed under the radar screen: On one monotone day one more monotone.

but in general they don’t seem integral enough to the movement of the versification. as well as his deployment of the incessantly recurring pronouns (him. to take you somewhere else. Mendelsohn has been rightly praised for his strong and highly original translation of “In Despair. he). wherever I cast my eyes.” This poem is written in a form that Cavafy invented and used a number of times: each line has six iambic beats though the verse is broken into trimeters by a space at the center of the line. and if at times it veers close to choppy prose. though not always supple. Mendelsohn’s version is especially felicitous in the way that his control of the trimeter half lines. This is especially true of the thalassa / xalassa rhyme which clamps the poem shut like a steel trap — though in Mendelsohn’s version the rhymes are so faintly sounded across the distance of seven lines as to be almost inaudible: shore / year. and though free verse is an important part of his repertoire. and inside those same houses you’ll grow old. generates rhymes more naturally and abundantly than English. of every And new from now lover on that he he seeks takes . they don’t seal off the exits forcibly or inexorably enough as the lines keep turning through the poem’s determinist labyrinth. How long will my mind endure this slow decay? Wherever I look. the rhyme-wave that washes over the poem is barely a low tide ripple. Mendelsohn’s versification is rich and varied. my heart — like something dead — lies buried away. There’s bound to be another city that’s better by far. you won’t find other shores. they don’t exist. Don’t bother to hope for a ship. But here. so you’ve wasted it through all the world. “An Old Man. Some of Mendelsohn’s rhymes are fresh. his meter is never on automatic pilot. and the scansion is often engaged with the specific rhythmical demands of each poem in interesting ways. It is meant to be read first. He’s in lost the him lips utterly. One could argue that Greek. and along with “The Satrapy” it forms the gateway by which the reader enters his work: You said: “I’ll go to some other land. You’ll always end up in this city. I see all round me the black rubble of my life where I’ve spent so many ruined and wasted years. (A superb example of how meter and rhyme and delicately shifting cadences can work together to create an implicit web of overwhelming. The city will follow you. and that the jarring sound of full rhymes can sound forced in contemporary verse.” You’ll find no new places. shores / world. This poem was very important to Cavafy. it is not nearly as ubiquitous as some previous translations have implied. until all roads lead to the dead-end street of helpless frustration. I’ll go to some other shore. where the Homeric word for Odyssean wandering and the demotic word for a shipwrecked life should collide rather than merely coincide. a route. his. The streets in which you pace will be the same. you’ll haunt the same familiar places. My every effort has been ill-fated from the start. Just as you’ve destroyed your life here. listless entrapment is in Robert Pinsky’s imitation of Cavafy’s poem.the word for “sea” (thalassa) and for “wasted” (xalassa). In the Greek the desperate relentlessness of the poem is in the way the rhyming couplets and the iambic rhythms are working in lock-step.”) Cavafy’s poems are usually driven by a distinct iambic meter. being an inflected language. captures the chafing urgency of a futile erotic longing. here in this small corner.

in the way that the trimeter half lines are self-contained units of meaningful speech. wished to save himself so unwholesome. because of the spacing. when they come. he said — time to save himself. the desired one. with to every be new mistaken: He’s lost him utterly. and more selfconsciously self-gratifying. There was still time. in the Greek. — What is it that we are waiting for. reflects the speaker’s isolation. so closely. the speaker poses questions in the fifteensyllable line that is the staple of the demotic folk song tradition. though.” the word play is paying more than poetic lip service to the attraction / repulsion dilemma. as if The other wished — he said — he from that stigmatized pleasure. “Waiting for the Barbarians”. Though the metrical and sexual torque of the poem isn’t always sustained (e. he’d never been. but also in the way the speaker’s need to hit on someone new becomes the same old turn off. he’d his the lips as he if in seeks never been. and the isolation of each phrase. hallucinations of that one.the lips of that one: his. in the lines repeating “stigmatized”).) There are other things to admire here too. the convolutions of rhythm and syntax consistently keep the tongue tied in a linguistic knot of libidinous angst. in its shame. from that stigmatized pleasure. that he’s given himself to him. insatiable feedback loop. without passing any laws? Because the barbarians Why should the senators The barbarians. The responses to those questions are given in iambic pentameter.. which Cavafy admired. a meter closely associated with English literature. it keeps the language on a deliciously contracted. if the speaker doesn’t take more pleasure in these erotic deferrals and demurrals and delays than Mendelsohn’s allow — the erotic undertones of the last line is perhaps less winsome. And when the erotic charge of “takes” is immediately taken up by “mistaken. gathered in the square? The Barbarians are supposed to arrive today. inside will still be the Senate arrive making house? today. and this fusing and defusing of desire is exacerbated by the continuous pressure to satisfy the the meter and syntax halfway through each interrupted line. in the lips of other youths he wishes that he might feel his love again. He’s lost him utterly. This poem gets its rhythmical vitality from the way the combination of obsession and recoil is rooted. Coupling lover that he takes he longs that it’s the same young man. including the way the word “that” keeps resurfacing in the poem. — Why is there such great idleness Why are the senators sitting there. and its great tradition of the blank verse line. In one of Cavafy’s most famous poems. will legislate. laws? . rather. (I wonder.g. In his imagination. like an obdurate reminder that the breath of the poem keeps coming up against the lips of “this” lover not “that” one. to the tightly unfurling meter: for instance.

poems with unique musical patterns — though at times he loses the intimately intricate thread of the voice in the mesh of this complex endeavor. in conjunction with the tone. and the pitch of the folksong meter carries over the cadences of nineteenth century Greece. not poetry. is here restored to its originally vivid — even baroque–variegation of folds and colors. his buoyantly redoubtable intelligence finds salubrious ways to keep the poems afloat. rather than keeping us alert for way the form of each poem. was so often used to express the communal rhythms of ritual in times of calamity. The ominous but almost pastoral leisure of the unfolding hexameter questions are answered point for point by the crisp iambics. That Cavafy’s singular tone is so readily available is also one of the hazards in translating him. generates its own body heat of sound and meaning. though here something more deeply absurd than irony seems to be called for: And now what’s to Those people were a sort of a solution. The century had changed its music. and the barbarians were indeed coming. At the end of the poem Mendelsohn. but stand taller in their . Cavafy’s poems stand alone. and a faceless voice as factual as a reporter for the BBC. is that he has given us a new way of engaging with Cavafy’s poems by slowing down our reading of them.”) “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a fin de siècle poem. (To the Greek-less reader. but they go beyond mere data and demonstrate connections that come from Mendelson’s deep and illuminating readings of the poems. The outstanding virtue of Mendelsohn’s translation. the erotic lava that seethes in the furrows of the flattest diction — is shown to be composed of more alloys than we might have imagined. At least some of the eerie fog of bewilderment that descends in the spaces between each stanza is due to the unsettling effect of the changing meter. but that Cavafy’s concentrated amalgam — the levels of language and the layers of history. To my ear his translation would have been truer to his own sense of the poem’s music. In Mendelsohn’s translation it’s not that every rift has been loaded with ore. (“Why are the mountains black? And why do they stand in black clouds? / Because Death is striding across them. the whitewashed classical statue that might have been the figure Cavafy’s poems cut in English before. inexplicably. and more thrillingly dislocated. become of us without barbarians. Most importantly. and the way the iambic pentameter responds to the hexameter. Too often Cavafy’s poems in English sound as if they are riding the melting ice of the poet’s famous tone for all its worth. as I see it. Mendelsohn’s attention to versification counteracts this tendency to smooth things down to the uniform and universal Cavafian melody. which celebrated its hard won freedom with a rash of patriotic songs and poems composed in the folk song meter.Mendelsohn uses hexameter verse to convey the fifteen syllable folksong line.) Though Mendelsohn’s scholarly animus at times outweighs his literary inventiveness. and making us pay closer attention to what is happening within the individual lines. with its marked caesuras and its bleak ballad undertones of dread conveyed in refrains that often take the form of petition and reply. and veers the craft towards the wooden wreckage of Scylla (the Charybdis of translation is strewn with the flapping silk sails of impressions too freely contrived). and makes the poems more interesting as poems. had Mendelsohn stuck to the cadence of the meter that.” The notes are not only full of extremely useful information (especially concerning Byzantine history and Cavafy’s literary influences). and with the clipped meter comes a deadpan tone as dry and level as the desert places at the heart of Cavafy’s best poems. the Cavafy he channels is serious and sensuous and linguistically entertaining enough to do what a good translation must: muffle the joyless censor’s voice in our head that says “this is translation. carrying away the dead. breaks up the final line to weep (as Yeats would say) by cutting the hexameter short. as if he felt this effect would make the final verse sound more ironically resigned. in the Greek folk tradition.

while at the same time reveling in details that allow it to savor its intensely voyeuristic focus. Five they brought him the receipt. Rather. He handed it went back inside tailor’s assistant waited. years. the image of a mirror is used to reflect the way that a poet sees — but Cavafy’s hallway mirror is more like the quicksilver mirrors in Cocteau. for a few minutes. (Plato probably had in mind Homer. who then to fetch a receipt. unaware that the pool is staring back: He drew near the mirror. For a moment the tailor’s assistant could be Narcissus staring into the pool of his own immaculate beauty. hallway of enormous that mirror. a final dilation of complete erotic and artistic absorption. and He drew near the mirror. which mirrored. which had seen and seen throughout its lifetime of so many thousands of objects and faces but the ancient mirror now became inflated with pride. a (on Sunday afternoons. rhythmic and syntactic culmination of “perfect beauty” — even . as if a lifetime of self-conscious efforts at emulating beauty had dissolved in a lyric moment. In The Republic. gazing at himself. a quietly triumphant poem in which flawlessness and effortlessness flow into and through each other: But the ancient mirror. The remained alone. and stood gazing at himself. But Cavafy’s self-immersion in the perfect image is too deep for the shallows of mythic allusion. in its sweeping depictions. here is a pure reflection of what happens when language and desire are mirror images. synonymous with the process of creating. and perhaps the great image of the shield of Achilles. sumptuous very house old. again.magisterial unity of poetic outlook and historical perspective. A strikingly beautiful boy. minutes later The poem is masterful in its perfect lucidity and unhurried yet insistent pacing. tailor’s assistant. to one of the household. itself The limpid surface of Mendelsohn’s language shimmers with more than a glint of the poem’s original potency. Plato uses the image of a man carrying around a mirror (or else a sort of walking mirror) to describe the artist / poet who was to be banned from the ideal city because of his fixation on the shadowy world of particulars. into which a beautiful young man is absorbed bodily in a moment of spontaneous transport: In the entrance there was an acquired at least eighty years ago. — elated. He took it and left. amateur athlete). because it had received upon perfect beauty. as in his attention to the xairoutan / epairountan embedded rhyme. in the calm gaze that is unobtrusively level with the mundane exchange in the front hall. where “elated” turns to “inflated” and the erotic swell of the lines reifies the finely prolonged.) In a very beautiful late Cavafy poem. and offer a clue to the meticulous way his mind worked. The notes add to our appreciation of Cavafy’s poems as supremely lucid distillations. an was standing with a package. and stood and straightening his tie. human existence.

And here Mendelsohn’s lucidly vibrant translation. . is also a gift in return for a gift: Cavafy in English. mirroring in its making the joy that he must have taken from the original.” (“Deflated” is the unstated mirror rhyme. Cavafy’s poem is the payment to him.) Just as the tailor’s boy waits for a receipt.as the danger of self-congratulation is quickly nipped in the bud by the acknowledgment of ecstasy’s transience: “for a few minutes. indulging the boy’s reflection in exchange for preserving his beauty (and perhaps an additional reimbursement for sexual favor received from boys like him).