|Cavafy's Technique of Inspiration ||C. Th. Dimaras
|As we make our first, systematic review of Cavafy’s poetry we see the established pattern emerge, according to which his poems fall into three categories: historical, didactic, and sensual. During our second examination, however, this pattern is broken as the homogeneity of his work¯its purely lyrical quality¯is revealed.
Our examination will lead us to the same point through different means of approach. For no matter how great their variety, the multiple layers of inspiration will always have a common center which ultimately gives them their unity, and this center is nothing other than the poet’s unified personality. A characteristic example here would be that of Cavafy’s early poetry, which, if we proceed to an advanced analysis, and in spite of differences of all kinds between the two, provides us with all the elements of his mature work. For the poet is always one person, if only we can find his unified form within his most contradictory expressions. The myth of Proteus offers us the best symbol of literary criticism in its approach to poetry: by overcoming the change in forms, the critic will at last be able to draw out the poet’s secret.
One means of arriving at the unity of Cavafy’s lyricism¯a particular one because specifically Cavafian¯is through a study of his technique of inspiration. This technique appears as a constant within his lyricism’s alternating expressions, creating a distinctive unity, an individualized sense of totality which encompasses all of Cavafy’s poetry. Naturally, such a technique is more noticeable in his sensual poems, whose lyrical quality is more immediately apparent. But the definition of the technique, which I will give now, can be applied to the whole of his poetry. I would even venture to say that with its objective characteristics this definition, coming as it does¯as it must¯after all other studies of the forms of Cavafy’s poetry have been completed, constitutes the definitive proof, the decisive evidence, of his poetry’s unity.
I believe, then, that Cavafy’s technique of inspiration can be defined as follows: it is the reconstruction, often voluntary, of real or imaginary scenes from the poet’s personal life or from history.
This reconstruction, this vision, either provokes an immediate emotion on the poet’s part, and is expressed lyrically, or prompts him to a narration or impels him to create a scene in which he himself plays the principal role. The third instance, for anyone familiar with Cavafy’s work, is the link between the sensual and the historical cycles.
Before proceeding to an analysis of the definition and to its applications to Cavafy’s work, I must make certain clarifications which will define more precisely the area of our investigation. A first remark, then, which aims at maintaining the outcome of our study on the desired theoretical level: we are examining the poet¯as we do every poet, always¯from an exclusively literary point of view. Even when a critic delves more deeply into the writer’s life, his aim is one and the same: to enhance our knowledge of the writer’s work, just as, at a further stage of analysis, our aesthetic acquaintance with the work raises us to the level of a surer examination of the man himself, which is the end and the beginning of any inquiry having to do with man and his works. Consequently, the question of whether the technique of inspiration, as I have defined it, constitutes the sublimation of another human passion is entirely outside the area of our research. Applied to other areas of concern, the definition could express the way in which all solitary pleasures function¯all pleasures, in other words, that are based not on the presence, but on the absence, of another individual. That such a sublimation of a human passion actually does occur in Cavafy’s poetry constitutes a very probable hypothesis. If we were to direct our study towards the poet’s psychology, I would use as evidence in support of this hypothesis certain terms which recur in his lyrical work, first of all, and then his work’s fundamental characteristic, that it is mature poetry, poetry of recollection and nostalgia. Nevertheless, without even invoking the rule of multiple causes, according to which many causes must have come together to give Cavafy’s poetry its specific character, I shall simply emphasize once again that these subjects, important in themselves, are entirely outside the limits of our investigation.
It is also to a large degree irrelevant to our subject to ask why Cavafy seems to have given such an important place in his work to a special form of erotic passion. I say that this question is not entirely irrelevant to our concerns, because, if we draw correct conclusions from its genesis, the whole matter of Cavafy’s unconventional eroticism (which has been the subject of much talk, especially at moments of decline in our literature’s rhythm, even on the part of critics who sought in the poet’s creation a justification for their own acts) is pushed completely aside and becomes a mere detail in his poetry, one of the symbols whose purpose is to hide the truth. I also say that Cavafy seems to have given such an important place to this form of eroticism in his work, because I believe that the critics’ one-sidedness in this instance, together with the poet’s skillful guidance achieved in certain poems, finally led to a distortion of the real perspective of Cavafy’s lyricism, which is molded from a variety of materials and not with the pitiful one-sidedness which certain critics have ascribed to it.
I should like to add, in passing, with reference to testimonies unrelated to his art, that nothing about Cavafy’s life¯in a city, moreover, where everything, the slightest act, became the subject of comments and censure¯has ever been heard which would allow us to suppose that it was in any way unusual. All those who knew him could attest that were it not for his indirect, so-called “confessions,” which are supposedly hidden in his work but were really put there intentionally and in full view so as to be easily noticed, nothing would have been said about Cavafy’s private life. There are his youthful “confessional” notes, which have been published in a most unsatisfactory manner, with unacceptable interventions on the part of their editor.1 However, if we read them without preconceived notions, we may verify that it is just as likely, if not more so, that they speak of incomplete erotic experiences, fabricated out of fantasies, desires, and memories, rather than of erotic experiences of an unorthodox kind. For never does another individual appear in these notes; moreover, the external circumstances sometimes do not seem to favor another individual’s presence.
Returning to his poetry, should we want now to ask why Cavafy preferred to use this unconventional symbol of eroticism, the answer could be easily found: by coming forth with one morally condemned passion, he is able to bring to completion his lyrical confession and at the same time to conceal another passion, also condemned. The first one does not offend human pride, while the second one is degrading; the first one has been celebrated by many from antiquity to the present, while the second one by very few; and always with a revolutionary, antisocial consciousness, which is the antithesis of Cavafy’s idiosyncrasy. But, as we have said, all of this is outside the area of our subject, which has in view an exclusively literary examination of Cavafy’s lyricism.
Finally, I should mention one more phenomenon, also related to Cavafy’s poetry and to the critics’ interpretation of it, which leaves me perplexed. How is it possible that while the poet tells us insistently and clearly not to believe him, not to take his symbols for realities, the critics have turned a blind eye? They have not demonstrated much more discernment here than the unprepared reader who reads the serial in his morning newspaper and thinks that he is reading the news. For the technique of dissimulation is constantly stated in Cavafy’s poems, either through symbols or directly. Of the abundant examples that illustrate this, it is sufficient to cite here the following three: “For the Shop” (1913), a simple confirmation that the real work of the artist is not that which appears in view; “Aimilianos Monai, Alexandrian, A.D. 628-655” (1918), which tells us that the purpose of the poet’s words is to conceal, and not to reveal, his true essence; and “Temethos, Antiochian, A.D. 400” (1925), even more candid than the other two, which speaks of the poet who alters reality so that he may sing freely of his passion:
we the initiated
know about whom those lines were written.
The unsuspecting Antiochians read simply “Emonidis.”
But it is time to proceed with the analysis of Cavafy’s technique of inspiration as I have defined it.
The reconstruction. This element is the most easily traced in Cavafy’s poetry, as reconstruction takes place in all the historical and the pseudo-historical poems, and in all those poems where reference is made to memories (“Days of ...” etc.). But, next to these, of even greater interest to us are those poems2 which provide direct knowledge of the lyrical experience:
Sometimes they speak to us in dreams;
Sometimes deep in thought the mind hears them.
Come back often and take hold of me¯
when the body’s memory revives
and an old longing again passes through the blood,
when lips and skin remember
(“Come Back” 1912)
His verse is now quoted by young men.
His visions come before their lively eyes.
(“Very Seldom” 1913)
my memories, those sensual images
(“Morning Sea” 1916)
that even now
as I write, after so many years!
in my solitary house, I am drunk again.
(“One Night” 1915; trans. Dalven)
Naturally, the careful reader will already have noted the adjective “solitary.” But I continue with two more examples:
An echo from the days of pleasure
(“In the Evening” 1917; trans. Dalven)
I’ve looked on beauty so much
that my vision overflows with it.
(“I’ve Looked So Much....” 1917)
These examples should be sufficient to convince us of the fundamental role that reconstruction plays in Cavafian inspiration.
Often voluntary. This element, the provocation by the poet, or the exercise of his will, also recurs often enough in Cavafy’s poetry for us to consider it something basic to his inspiration:
Try to keep them, poet,
those erotic visions of yours,
however few of them there are that can be stilled.
(“When They Come Alive” 1916)
From another poem, of 1917:
Memory, keep them the way they were.
And, memory, whatever you can bring back of that love,
whatever you can, bring back tonight.
The poem “Kaisarion” (1918) will be the subject of further discussion later on in our study. For the moment, we should just remember what the poet says there about the lamp which, by going out, allowed the vision of the dead king to enter the room: “I let it go out on purpose.” It is clear that he wanted to bring about that vision. Finally, the well-known and often-recited poem “To Call up the Shades” (1920) appears to teach the same technique:
One candle is enough. Tonight the room
should not have too much light. In deep reverie,
all receptiveness, and with the gentle light¯
in this deep reverie I’ll form visions
In all these cases, the poet declares that he wanted the reconstruction to take place; that he himself brought it about.
Of real scenes. The reconstruction, whether provoked or spontaneous, sometimes refers to real scenes. The poet doesn’t always tell us so, even though many of the sensual poems could have their source in reality. Sometimes, however, we have a near affirmation that this is true:
The vision of my youthful body
(“Since Nine O’Clock” 1918; trans. Dalven)
my whole being radiated
the sensual passion stored up inside me.
(“Outside the House” 1918)
Similarly, in two related poems of 1919:
that has crossed twenty-six years
and now comes to rest in this poetry.
(“Comes to Rest”)
In these verses, as in those I mentioned first with regard to the reality of the scenes being reconstructed, the connection with poetry is clear. In others this is not the case, although the presence of the elements within the poems constitutes the evidence we need:
the afternoon sun used to touch half of it.
(“The Afternoon Sun”)
The poet wants us to believe his testimony, and this is enough for us.
Or imaginary scenes. Indeed, perhaps even more often (at least in a certain category of poems) the scenes are imaginary, deriving from a stimulation of the imagination which may be conscious or unconscious, volitional or spontaneous. This is the case in all the pseudo-historical poems, where the reconstruction is that of imaginary scenes. We know that this is also the case in several of the sensual poems¯although it is possible that many others as well, in which there is no explicit indication that the scenes are the poet’s fantasies, have an equally imaginary source. What is characteristic here is not the fact that in many poems we do not know whether they derived from a subjective experience, but rather that in Cavafy’s poetry there are some confirmations to the contrary; confirmations that their inspiration has its source in the poet’s imagination:
É gave in completely and went,
went to those pleasures that were half real,
half wrought by my own mind
(“I Went” 1913)
And, as we know¯as he himself often explains in those poems having the analysis of his poetic technique as their object¯it is for Cavafy through these pleasures that the work of art is born. The elaboration of the imagination in the poem “Body, Remember...” (1918) is even more evident:
Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds you lay on,
but also those desires glowing openly
in eyes that looked at you,
trembling for you in voices¯
only some chance obstacle frustrated them.
Now that it’s all finally in the past,
it seems almost as if you gave yourself
to those desires too¯
The poem entitled “The Next Table” (1918) is also important from this point of view. Here we have a complete illusion, where the conscious victim is the poet himself who, nonetheless, relates the episode:
He must be barely twenty-two years old¯
yet I’m certain that just about that long ago
I enjoyed the very same body.
It isn’t erotic fever at all.
And I came into the casino only a few minutes ago,
so I haven’t had time to drink very much.
However, this illusion of the recurrence of a scene, which the poet describes with such self-awareness, is all that is needed for his inspiration; for the idealization, in other words, of the erotic desire which the illusion creates. The poem “I’ve Brought to Art” (1921), where the poet actually contemplates from where his inspiration had been drawn, comes to complete this relative confession:
I’ve brought to Art desires and sensations:
faces or lines, certain indistinct memories
of unfulfilled love affairs.
Let me submit to Art:
Art knows how to shape forms of Beauty,
almost imperceptibly completing life
But let us continue, and complete, the definition.
From the personal life of the poet or from history. No examples are necessary here, as all of Cavafy’s poems have either a personal or a historical source. Nevertheless, I would like to demonstrate, drawing my examples from two poems, the way in which the subjective and the historical elements meet in Cavafy, and the way in which the latter, through the creation of the vision, leads to lyricism and to the release of the individual through play-acting. I will also point out the special character of suggestion that, in accordance with his technique of creating visions, is brought about in his poetry not through vagueness, but by the detailed, exhaustive elaboration of images. These observations tie in easily with the entire theory being supported here.
The first example is from the poem “In the Month of Athyr” (1917). This poem emanates a peculiar suggestiveness which is not created by the unbearably prosaic rhythm of the poet’s effort to read an epigraph.
With difficulty I read on the ancient stone.
but rather by some of its other elements. I would mention first of all the poet’s struggle to rise from the fragmented reality to pure fantasy, and the stages in his progression from one to the other: fragment, reconstitution, lyrical release. From the scattered¯and perhaps imaginary¯material, he creates a vision of youth and beauty, ending in love and in the erotic reverie of the last verse:
In the month of Athyr Leucius fell asleep.
This is the progression towards art: the constant elaboration of details, taken from
faces or lines
which bursts into a vision having the hidden or visible signs of eroticism. We have only to remember here Cavafy’s many poems that begin in a narrative style and end lyrically; thus, “One Night” (1915), “Comes to Rest” (1919), “The Afternoon Sun” (1919), “The Mirror in the Front Hall” (1930), “Days of 1908” (1932). As a confirmation of the parallel between the special erotic pleasure and the lyrical outburst based solely on the imagination, I don’t think that any poet has given us as revealing a poem as Cavafy’s “In the Boring Village” (1925). It, too, begins in a typically prosaic style,
In the boring village where he works¯
clerk in a store
only to end in a sensual liberation made possible by a vision:
And in his sleep pleasure comes to him;
in his sleep he sees and has the figure, the flesh he
The second example, because analytical, is, I believe, decisively convincing. I have in mind the two poems “Alexandrian Kings” (1912) and “Kaisarion” (1918), whose common inspiration is guided by Kaisarion, the eldest son of Cleopatra. Between the two poems there is something more than the common subject; there is an internal correlation, a completion of the first poem by the second¯something like the “tail” that Cavafy attaches to some of his poems, or better, in this case, something like an interpretative comment. At the same time, the passage of the lyrical impulse takes place here between the two poems, rather than within the same poem, which is the poet’s characteristic mode, as in “Comes to Rest”¯
that has crossed twenty-six years
and now comes to rest in this poetry.
But it is only later, only after reading the second lyrical creation, that we can fully understand the meaning of the first.
“Alexandrian Kings” is a poem which, taken by itself, could be considered purely descriptive, one of the ties between Cavafy’s art and a certain aspect of the French Parnasse. However, it is important to note that Kaisarion, the main character of the myth, who, as the poet says, was “standing in front of the others,” is described in all the details of his dress with an insistence and an exhaustiveness that only a wakeful dream can give¯something that comes close to fetishism: colors, shapes, all of him
dressed in pink silk,
on his chest a bunch of hyacinths,
his belt a double row of amethysts and sapphires,
his shoes tied with white ribbons
prinked with rose-colored pearls.
And further on Kaisarion is portrayed once again as being “all grace and beauty”: a vision that passes through the poem and disappears without provoking any noticeable emotion.
But the second poem will tell us of the vision’s origin; will show us how, and with what persistence, the poet’s eroticism had been crystallizing for years around the same fantasy. If the poet’s self is entirely absent from the first poem, in the second, on the contrary, it asserts itself from the beginning. The poem is entitled “Kaisarion,” but it really is a lyrical confession, a description of the way in which the poet draws sensual pleasure from history. And, once again, we find in the first verses a prosaic style¯a careful but powerless guard of the world of sensibility:
Partly to verify the facts of a certain period,
partly to kill an hour or two,
last night I picked up and read
a volume of inscriptions about the Ptolemies.
Nothing allows us to predict how the evening will develop. If the narration were real, the evening’s end would perhaps be the right time for Cavafy to write one of those “confessional” notes to himself which the critics have misunderstood:
When I’d found the facts I wanted
I would have put the book away, but a brief
insignificant mention of King Kaisarion
suddenly caught my eye...
And here, without any preparation at all, the sudden transition to lyrical expression takes place. Cavafy comments on his earlier poem, and at the same time analyzes the way in which his new vision was brought about:
There you stood with your indefinable charm.
Because so little
is known about you from history,
I could fashion you more freely in my mind.
I made you good-looking and sensitive.
My art gives your face
a dreamy, appealing beauty.
And so completely did I imagine you
that late last night,
as my lamp went out¯I let it go out on purpose¯
I thought you came into my room,
it seemed you stood there in front of me
The old and the new experience now merge in the same lyrical confession. The technique of inspiration: the vision provoked by a small, insignificant external stimulation, the creation of the appropriate conditions for the vision to be brought to completion, the elaboration of the detail upon an incidental event¯a meeting in a casino, a chance encounter in the street, a tombstone, an inscription¯and then all the memories of real or imaginary events from the poet’s life or from history. The technique of inspiration: I need not give its definition a third time.
1. In The Life and Work of Constantine Cavafy by Michael Peridis (in Greek), Athens, 1948, pp. 45-48. Some notes have since been published in English in Robert Liddell’s Cavafy: A Critical Biography, London (Duckworth), 1974, pp. 72-73. [Translator’s note]
2. All translations of Cavafy, unless otherwise indicated, are from C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis (Princeton University Press, 1975). The remaining translations are from The Complete Poems of Cavafy, translated by Rae Dalven, expanded edition (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976). Dates given with the poems are those of publication. [Tr]
|C. Th. Dimaras, “Cavafy's Technique of Inspiration” (1932), translated by Diana Haas, Grand Street, Vol. 8 No. 3 (Spring 1983) |