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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1903

In every century there are those poets who work on the small scale, at the intimate level, where the individual seems to speak, or even whisper, half overheard, to one other person. The language of these close, personal conversations seems to assume (or perhaps create) a shared knowledge between poet and reader. The poems allude rather than explain; they hint, rather than describe; and they refer rather than demonstrate. Most of all, through the whole body of the poet’s work, the poems, however different their subject matter or tone, continue conversations begun long before and resumed, perhaps after a long pause in time, without a moment’s lapse in thought.

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Not infrequently, these poets remain completely or largely unpublished during their lifetimes and their discovery, fame, and influence comes most fully after their deaths. The United States’ Emily Dickinson is one famous example; Britain’s Gerard Manley Hopkins another. Other poets of this sort may publish and even achieve some level of notice, yet the overall tenor and meaning of their poetic conversation remains largely hidden from their contemporaries. A. E. Housman stands for this type, and the shifting interpretation and appreciation of his poems illustrates how difficult a thing it can be to understand the meaning of even “simple” and straightforward verse.

Constantine Cavafy, perhaps the greatest of poets writing in Greek during the twentieth century, is in this company. Cavafy was primarily known during his lifetime for the relatively few poems which he had printed in broadsheets and which he distributed to his inner circle of friends and relatives. Cavafy did assemble three small booklets of his self-gathered verse (Poems: 1905-1915Poems: 1916-1918, andPoems: 1919-1932) but it was not until after his death, much like Dickinson and Hopkins, that the true extent and measure of his genius and its accomplishment became known. Now, with the publication ofBefore Time Could Change Them, readers can experience Cavafy’s work in an English that is close to the spare, direct, unsentimental, but often highly sensuous language that is Cavafy’s original Greek. In reading these poems, one can see why Cavafy has earned such high esteem for such a relatively small body of work.

Born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Greek parents, Cavafy was raised largely in England and returned to live his adult life in Egypt, yet he never became either an English or an Egyptian citizen. Rather, for never-articulated reasons of his own, he chose to spend thirty years as a “provisional clerk” (a permanent but unsecured position) with the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation. Perhaps this sense of a transitory yet enduring existence echoed the feelings which were expressed in so many of his poems; perhaps it simply suited Cavafy to reside in a twilight area of his own devising where he could observe but not be forced to commit himself. Above all, the arrangement allowed him to reside in Alexandria: a vital point, since it is impossible to conceive of Cavafy and his verse without that city—or that city without Cavafy and his verse.

The verse came relatively late, at least to the public’s attention. It was not until 1895 that Cavafy began to write seriously and fairly steadily. It was not until 1903 that his poems were published in periodicals such asPanatheneum, an Athenian literary journal. Cavafy was forty-one when he published his own first book, which contained only fourteen poems. His first stage of becoming known (as much as he ever was) outside his immediate circle was in the decade from 1908 to 1918, when his work appeared fairly regularly in the Athens literary magazine Nea Zoe (“new life”) and he was read throughout the Greek world of the eastern Mediterranean, which at that time included much of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the Levant (today’s Middle East), and Egypt. His poems began to be translated into English, French, and Italian, and Cavafy was known to a slightly wider, but certainly not widespread, audience. After his death, his known poems were collected and published in Athens under the title Poiemata (1935; The Complete Poems of Cavafy, 1961).

Ironically enough, although Cavafy wrote in Greek and is known as the foremost Greek poet of the twentieth century, he visited Greece only on a few occasions and seems not to have cared for it. Ironic, but not entirely surprising. Cavafy’s Greek world was not the modern peninsula of the European mainland but rather the islands and coastal cities along the Ionian shore of Asia Minor and, above all, the city of Alexandria, lodged at the mouth of Nile River. When Cavafy does write of Greece (and of Rome, for that matter) it is not of today, but of the classical and Hellenistic periods, when Christianity was either unknown or at best one, and by no means the strongest, of the many competing cults that had to vie for the attention, much less the devotion, of men and women.

Cavafy (who once wrote that, had he not been a poet, he would have been an historian) captures this period perfectly, not with broad, grand strokes or careful exposition, but in almost casual asides that assume that the reader already knows what the poet is about to tell. In poems such as “Procession of Dionysus,” the poet, reader, and subject are all contemporaries in the same antique land: “Damon the artisan (in all the Peloponnese/ there’s no one more skilled),” the poem begins. Damon is unintroduced, indeed hardly named, in this direct opening, and the reason is that we all know this artisan—after all, he is the most gifted in all of Greece, and for the time of the poem, we are as much residents of that land as we are readers of this verse. Direct, spare and to the point, Cavafy is most eloquent, most “poetic” when he avoids the traditional trappings and conventions of poetry.

Because of this naturalism, his poems can make the reader believe in the legendary, the mythic, and the supernatural. Sometimes this belief is only for the span of the poem but, in Cavafy’s best works, the effect lingers and the faint wisps of belief never truly leave. In “Julian at the Mysteries,” for example, the Neoplatonic Roman emperor Julian, not yet the apostate who would renounce Christianity and attempt to restore the pagan pantheon, descends into a ritual cave where he is confronted by “bodiless shapes emerging/ in bursts of glory and blazing lights.” Instinctively, Julian makes the sign of the cross and the shapes vanish—proof, Julian says, that he has vanquished demons. His Greek guides laugh at him contemptuously, replying that the gods departed because “their noble nature was disgusted/ and they left, and did so despising you.” Whose is the truth here, the Christian or the pagan? Cavafy does not answer and the question lingers in the reader’s mind.

Even more powerfully is this effect achieved in Cavafy’s masterpiece, “The God Forsakes Antony.” In this poem, Cavafy transports the reader back to Alexandria just before the army of Antony and Cleopatra are overwhelmed by the troops of the future emperor Augustus. As the Hellenistic world is about to give way to Rome, its champion Antony is deserted by the gods who to that point have granted him success; prepare to go with them gracefully, even thankfully, the poem advises, for ultimately there is no choice:

Like a man who’s all along been ready, like a man made bold by it,
say your last farewell to her, to Alexandria, who is leaving.
First, foremost, do not fool yourself,
and say it was a dream, or that your ears were tricked;
do not stoop to such vacant hopes.

Caught in the power of Cavafy’s poetry, both Antony and the reader are saying farewell to an entire world more sensual, mystical, and natural than the logical order of imperial Rome and, ultimately, of Christianity, which replaced it. The god has forsaken us, but the sounds of “that mystic troupe’s rare playing” remains and we are haunted by the Alexandria we have lost.

Such poems have special power because of the direct, personal, even conversational tone which Cavafy uses. His address is direct and intimate. In “The God Forsakes Antony,” he speaks to the Roman general as a contemporary and as a friend; when reporting on Julian’s misadventures in the cave, he is not recalling ancient history but recounting an event which happened recently—and whose final impact still lingers with undetermined meaning. The direct, conversational tone makes even the ancient world contemporary, and figures of whom the reader may know little or nothing (Dimitrios Selefkides, Orophernis, son of Ariathis, the grammarian Lysias) assume shapes both familiar and baffling. Because of this immediacy of language, the world of Constantine Cavafy is more real than much of poetry: it is not only heard, it is touched, smelled, known. Yet it is a world that is both familiar and unknown; above all, it is both here but forever lost.

This immediacy is well caught in the translations in Before Time Could Change Them. Theoharis Constantine Theoharis, who has written on James Joyce and Henrik Ibsen and taught at Harvard, has managed to capture not only Cavafy’s meanings but his tone and voice, much of which is found in the rhythms employed by the Greek poet. Theoharis was aided in this, as he notes in his introduction, by the fact that Cavafy wrote extensively in iambics, the “natural” English meter which allowed for a relatively easy match between the two otherwise disparate languages. Theoharis has also been careful to retain what he terms the “decorous intensity” and “urbane clarity” of Cavafy’s originals; the result has been to transfer largely intact the combination of sophisticated knowledge and immediate wonder that is at the center of so many of Cavafy’s poems. “I am telling you something which we both already know,” the poet seems to be saying, “but yet—is it not really remarkable, even supernatural?” It is a difficult tone to capture, an even more daunting one to maintain, yet Theoharis has done it with consistency and grace.

Translations, however eloquent and exact, must ultimately stand or fall upon the strength and power of their originals. The Iliad or the Odysseyare immeasurably powerful in their original Greek, yet they have captured the imagination of readers, listeners, and viewers in dozens of different languages, lands, and centuries. The language in which the story of Hamlet is told must obviously be different in French, German, or Russian—or in Greek, as in Cavafy’s poem “King Claudius”—but something of the power of Shakespeare’s English continues across the linguistic boundaries, especially if the transfer is conducted with skill and artistry. Since translations usually detract rather than add, the greater the source, the better.

The relatively slim volume of work from the pen of Constantine Cavafy provides such greatness. In these relatively few poems, written largely about the distant past yet with the immediacy of the present moment, he has fashioned a world that is at once familiar and yet strange, intimate and yet distant. Each poem is a view never glimpsed before, yet of something that has always been known. Before Time Could Change Them has captured that accomplishment and given us that world. It has made us all citizens of Alexandria once again.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 97 (April 15, 2001): 1527.

Publishers Weekly 248 (March 26, 2001): 85.

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