When he died in 1933, C. P. Cavafy was virtually unknown outside a small circle of friends and admirers. Since then, however, his reputation has grown to the point that he is regarded as one of the two or three greatest Greek poets of the twentieth century. Now, Daniel Mendelsohn has added his versions of Cavafy’s poems to an ever-growing body of English translations.
Cavafy was born in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863. Although the city was Egyptian, Cavafy’s parents were Greek, members of a large ethnic community that lived and flourished far beyond Greece’s nominal borders. Cavafy’s father was a wealthy and successful merchant, but his death when the child was only seven forced the family to live on the generosity of far-flung relatives. As a result, Cavafy spent five years in England before returning with his mother to Alexandra. Subsequently, he led an outwardly uneventful life. He worked as a clerk in the Irrigation Office of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works from 1892 until 1922 and continued to live with his mother until her death in 1899. Cavafy seems to have had his first homosexual experience (with a cousin) when he was twenty. Back in Alexandria, he developed the habit of slipping out after eating dinner with his mother to have sexual encounters with other men. According to one acquaintance, he also rented a room in a brothel.
Cavafy began writing poetry in his teens, but for the most part it was conventional and derivative. As Mendelsohn makes clear in his comprehensive introduction, Cavafy’s early influences included two French literary movementsthe Parnassians, who stressed the doctrine of “art for art’s sake,” and particularly the Symbolists, who elevated poets to a kind of elite status. One early poem by Cavafy bears the pointed title “But Wise Men Apprehend What Is Imminent,” contrasting such privileged figures with those “in the street/ outside” who “hear nothing at all.” With time, however, Cavafy was able to meld a number of more personal factorshis troubled sexuality, his identity as a Greek living outside Greece, his memories of the lost splendors of his childhood, and his sense of the even greater splendors of the vanished Hellenic worldinto a body of ironic, elegiacal work.
Most of Cavafy’s poems are short, with few extending beyond two pages. Aside from their allusions, they are also relatively straightforward, although they incorporate subtleties that defy easy translation. The poems Cavafy wrote during his maturity may be grouped into two general categories: the historical and the erotic. Many deal with familiar historical (or mytho-historical) figures, such as Achillesthe Greek hero of the Trojan Waror the Roman emperor Julian, known as “the Apostate.” More frequently, however, the figures are obscure, such as rhetorician Theodotus of Chios or Seleucid dynastic victim Orophernes.
The Roman soldier and statesman Mark Antony, whose troops had been defeated in battle by Octavian (the future Emperor Augustus), appears in one of Cavafy’s earliest and most memorable poems, “The God Abandons Antony.” The poem is set in Cavafy’s native city on the last night of Antony’s life. Miraculously, the doomed man hears the music and tumult of the invisible procession of the god Dionysus, to whom he had once compared himself and who now is deserting him. The poet counsels Antony not to fool himself into thinking that he is dreaming, but “like someone brave” to “listen with deep emotion” to the “exquisite instruments of that initiate crew/ and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.” The story, according to Mendelsohn’s helpful note, is taken from an account by ancient Greek biographer Plutarch.
One of Cavafy’s finest and most famous poems, “Ithaca,” draws a lesson from the long voyage home made by Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses) after the Trojan War. The poem counsels the traveler to “hope that the road is a long...
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