To read Cavafy, one must know how he viewed himself. He once said that he had two abilities: to write poetry and to write history. The history that he used allowed him to objectify the world he lived in and was of interest in itself, for it was the history of Greek civilization. After Alexander the Great’s conquests in Asia, despite the collapse of his empire, there were for many years small and large Greek-ruled states as far away from Greece as the borders of India; political power was also cultural power. Greek culture did not, however, die with the loss of political power.
The history that Cavafy uses is largely the history of the Hellenistic world after the end of Greek independence. Even before the Romans conquered the eastern part of the Mediterranean, however, the prestige of Greek civilization had a powerful effect on the Empire. After the conquest, the high culture of that eastern half of the Mediterranean was Greek, and everywhere Greek culture was regarded as the epitome of cultural achievement. Although in one sense Cavafy is satirizing the philhellene king, in another he is in agreement with him. They both love the Greek language and Greek culture; these things give meaning to their lives.
For Cavafy, history is not simply the recounting of events or the examination of an underlying economic or social substructure. Indeed, one of the reasons for Cavafy’s use of the dramatic monologue was that it served his idea that it is the “dramatic” in history that matters. He admired historians who wrote history as drama, since drama is lived, not merely experienced intellectually.
“Philhellene” is not merely a poem about history. The king is also an aspect of Cavafy himself. Therefore, despite its appearance of objectivity, one must admit that the poem is an expression of the poet. The poem is, in essence, the examination of an insecure soul who is seeking some sort of dignity and identity in being part of a greater civilization, not merely a king without power. It is, in short, an examination of a kind of alienation. Cavafy, who was a homosexual, was a Greek who was born in Alexandria, Egypt; he was an outsider in both his sexual orientation and his nationality.
In a sense, the king’s idea of the work of art expresses the aesthetic belief of Cavafy that a work of art is to be judged by the quality of its workmanship. The king wishes for a thing of beauty, which is perhaps a way of overcoming his sense of being outside. There is one more connection between Cavafy and the king: Cavafy was a man who believed in the life of the body—in pleasure—both artistic and physical. The king’s insistence upon the discus-thrower figure for the back of the coin suggests something about his idea of living—that it be pleasurable, and not only to the eye.
Cavafy remarked that his talents were those of a poet and a historian, but one must note that “poet” comes first. Cavafy was first a man of letters, an artist; second, a historian; and, finally, an outsider.
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