(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The works of Constantine P. Cavafy were not published during the poet’s lifetime. At least, they cannot be said to have been published in the conventional sense. Frequently revising his early poems and suppressing those he thought were inferior, Cavafy shared much of his poetry with only his closest friends, often distributing his works in the form of privately printed broadsides, pamphlets, or small volumes. At the time of his death of cancer at the age of seventy, the poet left behind sixty-eight poems arranged thematically in two small books, a folder of sixty-nine additional poems printed on broadsides, and a large number of poetic drafts in various stages of completion. Two years after Cavafy’s death, his literary executor, Alexander Singopoulos, issued a volume containing 153 of Cavafy’s poems, all that the poet himself considered to be his finest work.

Passions and Ancient Days is an edition of twenty-one additional poems that the editors, Cavafy scholars Edmund Keeley and George Savidis, have judged to be of quality equal or superior to those appearing in Singopoulos’s edition. At times, Cavafy seems to have suppressed these poems because they were dramatically different in tone and subject matter from his other work. (This seems to have been the case, for instance, with “King Claudius,” Cavafy’s only surviving poem on a Shakespearean theme.) At times, reading this book of rejected work, one thinks that the poet appears to have been excessively critical of his own work. In any case, the poems that Keeley and Savidis selected develop themes and images already introduced in the 153 canonical poems. For example, “Julian at the Mysteries” closely resembles six poems dealing with the historical figure of Julian the Apostate (c. 331-363 c.e.) such as “Julian in Nicomedia” (1924) and “On the Outskirts of Antioch” (1933). “The End of Antony” completes a cycle of earlier poems about the Roman politician and soldier Marc Antony (c. 83-30 b.c.e.), including “The Gods Abandon Antony” (1918) and “In a Township of Asia Minor” (1926). “September, 1903” and “December, 1903” are works that capture the erotic sensation of a single moment, similar to “Days of 1903” (1917) and “Days of 1896” (1927) among Cavafy’s works in the Singopoulos edition.

The title Passions and Ancient Days is derived from a thematic structure that Cavafy once used for his poetry. In a commentary on his work, Cavafy said that all of his poems could be divided into three categories: the historical, the philosophical, and the erotic. In Passions and Ancient Days, “passions” refer to Cavafy’s erotic poems and “ancient days” to his historical poems. Cavafy’s philosophical poems are largely unrepresented among the twenty-one works included in this volume. Passions and Ancient Days reproduces each poem in the original Greek on the left-hand page, with an English translation by Keeley and Savidis on the right-hand page.

The erotic poems contain many of the same themes appearing in Cavafy’s other work: passionate homosexuality; brief, often furtive, encounters with strangers; and the shame and secrecy imposed upon gays by an intolerant society. For example, “September, 1903” addresses the poet’s own fears of admitting his feelings to others. He chides himself for his cowardice, wondering why he could not speak even the few words that may have ended his loneliness. He is grieved by the number of times he was near someone whom he could have loved if only he had had the courage to speak. Now, all he wants to do is to console himself by recalling the comforting illusion of what might have been.

Keeley and Savidis note that the conflict between illusion and reality is a repeated theme in all of Cavafy’s erotic poems. For instance, in “December, 1903,” a companion piece to “September, 1903,” Cavafy observes that, while he can never speak of the love that he once felt, his lover’s...

(The entire section is 1658 words.)