|The Universal Perspective ||Edmund Keeley
|When Seferis remarked that Cavafy gives the impression, in the poems of his old age, that “he is constantly discovering things that are new and very valuable,” and that when Cavafy died at the age of seventy, “he left us with the bitter curiosity that we feel about a man who has been lost to us in the prime of life,”1 Seferis seems to have been voicing both a recognition of the accomplishment¯the wisdom and originality¯of Cavafy’s late work and a certain disappointment that the Alexandrian’s lifelong “work in progress” (again Seferis’ phrase)2 clearly remained unfinished at his death. Cavafy himself is reported to have implied a like sense of unfulfilled possibilities when he said, during his last days: “I still have twenty-five poems to write”3¯ that is, the equivalent of one-sixth of the oeuvre that appeared as his collected poems in 1935. The reader who has followed Cavafy’s development through his mature years is likely to be haunted by those unwritten poems, especially now that his archives have revealed so much unpublished work of value, all of it dating from before 1920. It would be convenient for the argument of the present study to think of those unwritten poems as the ultimate phase of the poet’s development: the representation of a metaphoric mode that would bring together, and at the same time broaden, the three aspects of Cavafy’s myth in progress¯the Sensual City, ancient Alexandria, and the world of Hellenism¯in a detailed and coherent image of the human predicament that would be less idiosyncratic and nationalistic, that might finally transcend any specific geography and history¯an image more universal than those his Alexandrian preoccupation occasioned. What we actually have in his last poems are the first sure steps of a progress in this direction without the ample spread of interrelated examples that gave the dimensions of a poetic myth to each of the three images he did fully establish.
The evidence for this final aspiration rests on a few poems only, these written during the last five years of his life. The fact that they are few and scattered suggests that the poet had barely begun to shape this late discovery of “new and very valuable” things into a coherent image, if he was indeed consciously setting a pattern for the intimations the poems offer. The intimations are there in individual poems, most of all, perhaps, in the longest of those included in the canon,4 “Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340,” printed in 1929. The historical context is immediately familiar: ancient Alexandria during a period of conflict between competing religions, even within Christianity itself,5 about twenty years before Julian became Emperor and began his abortive attempt to restore the worship of pagan gods (though he himself was originally a Christian). The reader’s familiarity with the context is assumed in the poem’s strategy. At this late point in Cavafy’s work, the poet could draw with confidence on the fully constructed mythical world that his three images had created for his readers over the years. He could convey the historical moment and all it implied simply by a date in the title. And he could signal the special way of life relevant to the poem’s drama merely by placing the name of his mythical city before the date. The reader has thus entered into Cavafy’s myth before the monologue begins, and the poet can establish the poem’s particular setting and develop its particular action with strict economy. He can also assume that at least some of his readers will bring to the poem the resources in attitude and ambiance that his myth has provided, and which can now contribute to an understanding of the drama about to unfold.
The drama begins as a typical Cavafian confrontation between conflicting ideologies. We see that the pagan speaker and his dead Christian lover, despite the difference in their religious persuasions, have shared a devotion to the same familiar Alexandrian life, with its “wonderfully indecent night-long sessions,” its passion for enjoyment whatever the cost, its commitment to Greek verse, its worship of physical beauty. The dead lover, we are told, “lived exactly as we did: / more devoted to pleasure than all of us ....” In short, speaker and lover are both among “the initiated,” presumably impervious to religious conflict or historical change, committed to the Alexandrian way of life above all else. This in itself would have been a sufficient theme at an earlier stage in the poet’s development of his myth (see, for example, “Of the Jews [A.D. 50]” and “Theatre of Sidon [A.D. 400]”). But the particular setting that the poet projects here raises a larger issue. The pagan speaker is overwhelmed by the Christian aura of his lover’s funeral¯the talk of old women about his friend’s last act of faith, the priests with their fervent, unfamiliar orisons to Jesus¯and his sense of alienation in this setting leads him to doubt the shared commitment that he had taken for granted: he recalls those occasions when his friend had remained aloof from some pagan gesture that had engaged him and his other companions.
The speaker’s inner drama, focused on the tension between his faith and the competing faith of one he loves, might have been a sufficient statement for the poet, in earlier years. For example, in “Kleitos’ Illness,” the converted Christian nanny reverts to pagan gestures in the idle hope of invoking her black demon to save the life of the dying young Christian she has loved and nurtured, and in “Priest at the Serapeion,” the Christian convert, who rejects all those denying Christ, nevertheless mourns for his “kind old father... priest at that cursed Serapeion.” In “Myris” the drama rises to a new level of implication. The conflict becomes, in the concluding stanza, a struggle between the influence of Christian ritual performed by attendant priests “praying loudly / for the young man’s soul” and the influence of that lost passionate life the two lovers had shared¯a struggle, if you will, between Christian mystery and worldly memory:
I noticed with how much diligence,
how much intense concern
for the forms of their religion, they were preparing
everything for the Christian funeral.
And suddenly an odd sensation took hold of me:
indefinably I felt
as if Myris were going from me;
I felt that he, a Christian, was united
with his own people and that I was becoming
a stranger, a total stranger. I even felt
a doubt come over me: that I’d been deceived by my passion
and had always been a stranger to him.
I rushed out of their horrible house,
rushed away before my memory of Myris
could be captured, could be perverted by their Christianity.
The dramatic rhythm quickens to an epiphany in this stanza: from the speaker’s questioning the degree of commitment shared with his lover, to his sudden doubt about the character of the passion he has held sacred, and thence to his desperate effort of affirmation. The drama has become both larger and more intimate than in other poems treating pagan-Christian conflicts, and the evocation of history in transition has here been made a means of tragic illumination rather than an end in itself. But this larger drama is not confined to the complex human predicament that the speaker’s inner struggle represents. By the end of the poem, Cavafy seems to have used the speaker’s dislocation to depict an act of faith within the context of his Alexandrian ideology, one that is meant to parallel (if not counter) the mystery of Christian ritual that the speaker feels is uniting his lover Myris “with his own people” and transforming the speaker himself into a total stranger. Memory¯the resource that preserves and finally re-creates the transient life of the senses that dominates Cavafy’s Sensual City¯becomes, in the concluding lines, the one relic of the speaker’s passion that can challenge the Christian influence that is being exercised to capture (and presumably save) dead Myris’s soul; and the speaker’s move to free his memory from contamination by rushing out of the house becomes the one act of affirmation still possible in the face of the alien mystery surrounding him. Memory remains the only recourse¯the only access to some life after death¯for those committed to the Alexandrian ideology. The preservation through remembrance of that lost passionate life in its purity, untouched by doubt or alien influence, seems to be the ultimate act of faith for an Alexandrian hedonist of the Cavafian persuasion. The speaker’s gesture at the end of the poem speaks for all those mythical lovers, ancient and contemporary, who turn to memory for some solace and permanence when confronted by the inevitable loss that their kind of devotion carries with it. And if we recognize that the speaker’s act of faith is finally as doomed as his own life (in contrast to the expectations of those serving the rival persuasion), the act seems all the more poignant.6
“Myris” is perhaps unique among Cavafy’s mature poems in its effective accommodation of the full resources of the poet’s “mythical method,” resources that were the product of his having moulded his historical insight and his erotic vision into a coherent mythology over a period of almost twenty years. The particular quality of the poem, and the vitality of the poet’s method when its full capabilities were realized, become all the more manifest if one compares this poem with other late poems, which either explore an image of the dying Adonis without benefit of a clearly delineated historical context, or present a historical moment without the subtle human complexities. “Lovely White Flowers,” for example, published in the same year as “Myris,” offers an account of two contemporary lovers whose predicament, involving the death of one and the bereavement of the other, seems pallid, almost squalid, finally sentimentalized beside the lover’s predicament in “Myris,” and this because little more than material gain and transient emotion seem to be at stake in their doomed affair; certainly there is nothing like an ideology or an erotic commitment approaching mystery. Nor does their predicament reflect the pressures of historical conflict and change. In the contemporary context of this poem, without a specifically identified time or place, with very little reference outside itself, belief in the quality of passion between the lovers depends on the speaker’s assertion and on the reader’s indulgence, a fairly demanding requisite when the passion is shown to be sustained not by any special, shared way of life or precise set of values, but by the marketplace, where loyalties are rather casually exchanged for suits and silk handkerchiefs. And given the context, it is hard to see much more than wishful thinking in the bereaved lover’s claim that his friend finally came back to him from a rival bit of erotic commerce not only for the twenty pounds he has raised but also for “their old intimacy, / their old love, for the deep feeling between them.” As a consequence the bereaved lover’s gesture at the funeral, however sincere, seems an act of pathos, a sentimental ritual, in contrast to the lover’s convincing, tragic act of faith in “Myris”:
He laid flowers on his cheap coffin,
lovely white flowers, very much in keeping
with his beauty, his twenty-two years.
The poem concludes with an image that is hardly less sentimental, hardly more satisfactory in promoting the reader’s confidence in the quality of the passion represented:
When he went to the café that evening¯
he happened to have some vital business there¯
to the same café where they used to go together,
it was a knife in his heart,
that dead café where they used to go together.
A related weakness is evident in another late poem with a contemporary setting, “The Mirror in the Front Hall” (1930), where the poet celebrates the “total beauty” of a young Adonis, a tailor’s assistant, who arrives at the entrance to a luxurious house to deliver a package. He arrives without much of a past or much of a present, without either the historical or mythical context that gives substance and complexity to other such apparitions¯in “One of Their Gods” for example¯and the poet therefore relies on personification to raise the moment to the level of metaphor. The tailor’s assistant looks at himself in a mirror to adjust his tie, and the mirror suddenly comes to life¯alas, literally:
But the old mirror that had seen so much
in its long life¯
thousands of objects, faces¯
the old mirror was full of joy now,
proud to have embraced
total beauty for a few moments.
The effect is more quaint than convincing: a late exercise in the pathetic fallacy that doesn’t enhance either the underlying sentiment or the overt rhetoric (“full of joy,” “proud,” “total”) it is intended to justify and elevate.
The poet is more successful in a similar exercise that concludes the last poem he printed during his lifetime, “Days of 1908” (1932). Here the contemporary Adonis figure is again presented without benefit of an informing historical context, but he is given a personal history that clearly links him in the reader’s mind with the partly mythical inhabitants that have peopled Cavafy’s Sensual City these many years, and the poet discovers an appropriate rhetorical device for conveying the sentiment that this figure is meant to arouse. The personal history in this instance seems about as squalid as that of the lovers in “Lovely White Flowers,” a life of poverty supported by clever small-time gambling with stupid opponents and petty borrowing in “working class places” during “horrible late nights,” a life symbolized by the shabby clothes (“a terrible mess”) that the figure wears, specifically the cinnamon-brown suit he never changes. The suit becomes a metaphor for the seedy circumstances that our young Adonis escapes, every now and then, by stripping for a morning swim. With the shedding of “those unworthy clothes,” he has an opportunity to show what is worthy¯and presumably redeeming¯about him: a body that is “impeccably handsome, a miracle.” The miraculous, godlike quality of this apparition is established by a more subtle use of personification than that found in “The Mirror in the Front Hall.” The poet ascribes his image of undressed perfection to those summer days in the distant past that had the occasion, and the taste, to observe the image in its naked purity:
Ï summer days of nineteen hundred and eight,
from your view
the cinnamon-brown suit was tastefully excluded.
Your view has preserved him
as he was when he took off those unworthy clothes...
his hair uncombed, swept back,
his limbs a little tanned
from his morning nakedness at the baths and on the beach.
The device of personification, here free of forced rhetoric, heightens the evocation rather than sentimentalizing it, and serves to reaffirm the role of memory in preserving and transforming the ordinary, even the squalid, into an image that can claim a degree of permanence in the life of the imagination.
If several of Cavafy’s late poems focusing on the contemporary Adonis figure offer more sentiment than substance and rhetoric in place of convincing poetic statement, the example of “Myris” suggests that the poet had arrived in his last years at a tragic sense of life¯and the controlled expression that best evokes it¯which was sufficiently profound and universal to permit him in his best moments to translate his hedonistic bias and his special view of history into poetry of the highest order. Other late poems that deal directly with a historical moment point to the same conclusion, though none relates its historical context to the complexities of a specific human predicament with the effect achieved in “Myris.” What emerges from these late historical poems¯implicitly, never explicitly¯is a general view of the human predicament, one that transcends the particular context. The aspirations and expectations of the individual historical figures, and of the society they represent, are set against the general pattern of history, what some might call the historical process, others fate, others the work of God¯or, as it actually appears in Cavafy, gods. The tragic sense of life becomes manifest in the poet’s subtle implication that the success of any individual figure and any specific historical moment is in the hands of the gods and therefore subject to ultimate reversal¯in fact, inevitably doomed to reversal. Wisdom resides in the recognition of this limitation on human aspirations, arrogance in valuing too highly any particular success. We have seen the same theme before in “didactic monologues” such as “The Ides of March” and “Theodotos”¯but in these later poems the treatment is more subtle and more sweeping. The poet’s voice is always masked, his attitude that of an unexpressed conscience, and historical movements become as much the protagonists as those who represent the movements.
It is in the light of this final development that a seemingly obscure and rather dry historical evocation, “Alexander Jannaios and Alexandra” (1929), takes on more meaning than may be apparent if it is read in isolation. The poet appears to be describing that moment in the history of the Maccabees when the revolt of the Asmonaeans against the Selefkids had realized its highest aspiration under the most ruthless of the Asmonaean kings of Judaea, Alexander Jannaios. He and his Queen Alexandra, “full of their success, thoroughly satisfied,” are shown to be celebrating with every kind of pomp and circumstance what they take to be the completion of “the work begun by the great Judas Maccabaios / and his four celebrated brothers.” This work, described from their perspective as “relentlessly carried on / among so many obstacles and dangers,” consisted in fact of great bloodshed, including a history of judicious massacres (to use John Mavrogordato’s phrase) involving both internal and external enemies, not the least of which was Alexander Jannaios’ massacre of the Pharisees.7 The historical actuality behind the pomp and circumstance reminds us of Cavafy’s note on “Theodotos”: “Strive to become great, but don’t tread on corpses.”8 The king and his consort, in their arrogant presumption of success, casually ignore the violent history that has brought them where they are by focusing on the haughtiness of those who once ruled Judaea:
Nothing unseemly remains now.
All subservience to the haughty monarchs
of Antioch is over: clearly
King Alexander Jannaios
and his wife Queen Alexandra
are equal to the Selefkids in every way.
But the poet’s irony is not confined to the fact that treading on corpses occasioned the success celebrated here; the irony is directed most of all at the hubristic assumption that the “work” of years which so thoroughly puffs up the protagonists has reached a conclusion, a brilliant ending now that the autonomy of the Asmonaean Jews in their rivalry with the Hellenizing Selefkids has been firmly established. The autonomy won after so much bloodshed (yet still characterized by its own brand of Philhellenism: “Good Jews, pure Jews, devoted Jews above all. / But as circumstances require, / also skilled in speaking Greek, / even on familiar terms with Greeks and Hellenized monarchs”) in fact lasted a mere eighty years, from the rule of Simon in 142 B.C., when Judaea became a tree sovereign state, to the intervention of Pompey in 63 B.C., which brought Judaea under Rome after the period of further violence and dissent that had characterized the rivalry between Alexander Jannaios’ sons.9 The fate of the “haughty” Selefkids and the even haughtier Asmonaeans was ultimately one and the same; and the brilliant conclusion celebrated in this poem was no conclusion at all, either to “unseemly” history or to the struggle for Judaean autonomy and stability. But in contrast to the poet’s early didactic mode, this larger implication remains unstated in any form; it is carried entirely by the poem’s tone, by its irony, which depends for its effect not only on the reader’s knowledge of the historical context but also on an assumption about the poet’s point of view, which in turn depends to a large degree on our awareness of the perspective that the poet has developed over the years. Without this awareness, the lines that close the poem may be read as flat repetition, when they are in fact a standard instance of irony:
The work begun by the great Judas Maccabaios
and his four celebrated brothers
has indeed been concluded brilliantly,
concluded in the most striking way.10
If this poem points to the capacity for hubris, for blindness, of rulers who think they can prosper by treading on corpses and can retain their prosperity through the generations, whatever the will of powers beyond their control, another historical poem published in the same year (1929), “Come, Ï King of the Lacedaimonians,” points to the capacity for dignity, for inner greatness, of rulers who accept the limits of their power and leave both their prosperity and their future to the gods. The representation is more explicit here. Kratisiklia, mother of a Spartan king, knows the facts of history: Sparta has seen its best days, and part of the evidence of its decline is her having to leave the country in the humiliating role of hostage to “upstart” Ptolemy (as we saw in an earlier poem, “In Sparta,” discussed above). But it is still within her power to walk in dignified silence before her people, and it is still within her capacity to recognize that her ultimate fate is in the hands of powers beyond hers. And “the magnificent woman” says so in as many words to her distressed son, Kleomenis:
... “Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians,
when we go outside
let no one see us
weeping or behaving in any way unworthy of Sparta.
At least this is still in our power;
what lies ahead is in the hands of the gods.”
The unstated theme is buried in the poem’s concluding line: “And she boarded the ship, going toward whatever lay ‘in the hands of the gods’” ¯that is, her ultimate execution by “upstart” Ptolemy’s successor. The implication here is that dignity and wisdom do not ensure the gods’ favor; the wise and the arrogant, it seems, are both subject to the same prospects, the same fatal pattern. But it is exactly her recognition of this Cavafian reality that earns Kratisiklia the designation “magnificent.” Her insistence on maintaining her dignity at the moment of her humiliating departure is almost heroic, precisely because she knows that it is the right behavior even though it cannot help her with the powers that be; this knowledge is what makes it a royal act worthy of the grand history that has now turned against her.
The theme of man’s subservience to the will of the gods also has its unheroic, amusing manifestation in Cavafy’s late work. We have seen (in chapter 5) that the 1930 poem “To Have Taken the Trouble” offers an image of the typical realist/cynic in Cavafy’s mythical world, a character who finds the various rival leaders he contemplates serving to be “equally bad for Syria,” and who therefore feels justified in approaching any one of the three indiscriminately. But what stills his conscience most of all is the ultimate realization that his choice is really in the hands of “the almighty gods,” who ought to have taken the trouble to create “a fourth, a decent, man” and thus have absolved him, poor devil that he is, of the need to work with one or the other of the three idiots they did create. Such rationalization demonstrates that the other side of humility can be a cunningly amoral fatalism.
Maintaining a balance between dignity and cynicism is not easy when those who see things as they are must recognize how much man is a plaything of the gods and how easily the successes of history can be reversed, but the moral balance in Cavafy is weighted on the side of those who face their destiny with courage and wisdom rather than with arrogance or an excess of cynicism, whatever the prospects may seem to be (and they are often other than what his less perceptive characters take for granted). The poem that best represents the complexities of the poet’s perspective on history is the next to last he published during his life-time, “In the Year 200 B.C.,” a work so subtle in its mode that it demands careful reading to unravel its apparent ambiguities, though part of its force lies in the residue of ambiguity it permits: the truth of an attitude that is nevertheless open to ironic treatment. The historical context is deliberately complicated by the poem’s narrative focus: a monologue by a speaker living in 200 B.C. about a period of history that began some 130 years earlier. This monologue provides a survey of historical events, and their implications, from Alexander’s conquests in Persia to the “optimum moment of the decline of Hellenism” (to quote George Savidis’ note in Collected Poems), and, by suggestion, into the history of Hellenism beyond. The speaker’s attitude reflects his particular historical situation, which the title, emphasizing the date 200 B.C., identifies at the start. He begins his monologue with a bit of mild irony about the Spartans, who refused at a high point in their history to join Alexander’s pan-Hellenic expedition (invoked by the opening line) for the “understandable” reason, according to the speaker, that an expedition without a Spartan king in command couldn’t be taken very seriously. And as a consequence, the speaker implies, the Spartans denied themselves the glory of sharing in Alexander’s great victories at Granikos, Issus, and Arbela. More important, the Spartans could neither claim credit for, nor be part of, what emerged from Alexander’s conquests¯and here the speaker waxes eloquent:
And from this marvelous pan-Hellenic expedition,
triumphant, brilliant in every way,
celebrated on all sides, glorified,
incomparable, we emerged:
the great new Hellenic world.
We the Alexandrians, the Antiochians,
the Selefkians, the countless
other Greeks of Egypt and Syria,
and those in Media, and Persia, and all the rest:
with our far-flung supremacy,
our flexible policy of judicious integration,
and our Common Greek Language
which we carried as far as Bactria, as far as the Indians.
Given the quality of the rhetoric here and our knowledge of the particular Hellenism that most appealed to Cavafy, it is tempting to identify the poet with his speaker in these passages extolling “the great new Hellenic world” and leave it at that (as one important critic of Cavafy does11); but if the weight of adjectives in the first passage, and the fulsome tone of pride in the second, do not raise suspicions of some irony on the poet’s part, the historical context, underlined by the title, should. The speaker is delivering his eulogy to the new Hellenism just three years before the last of the Macedonian Philips was thoroughly routed by the Romans at Cynoscephalae and only ten years before the defeat of Antiochus III the Great at Magnesia, a defeat that established Roman supremacy over the great new world the speaker is celebrating in such unreserved¯not to say grandiloquent¯terms. Cavafy knows this history even if his speaker cannot. And though the speaker is merely telling the truth as he sees it¯such were Alexander’s victories and their consequences¯his vision of history is limited, of course, to the time in which he lives.
The point is reinforced by the poem’s concluding line: “How can one talk about Lacedaimonians now!”12 The line may be read simply as the speaker’s final sarcastic gibe at the Spartans, who are now, in 200 B.C., no longer worth talking about for all the arrogant superiority they demonstrated in refusing to join Alexander’s expedition 130 years earlier; but given the broader context of the poem, Cavafy might well answer his speaker: “How can one not talk about the Lacedaimonians now!” If Sparta, once great and haughty, has now fallen on evil days, what is likely to befall the great new Hellenic world, now so proudly¯and with this last sarcastic thrust, so haughtily¯ extolled? The history that followed hard on the speaker’s heels provides the final comment. And with this silent comment, the poem raises Cavafy’s perspective above the speaker’s particular bias¯one the poet himself has shared in earlier poems. The perspective is that of the poet-historian who sees a more universal, and necessarily tragic, pattern behind even those periods of historical greatness that best manifest the cultural and political values he believes in: the far-flung supremacy of Hellenism, with its flexible policy of judicious integration and its common Greek language. Yet a residue of the truth expressed by the speaker survives the poet’s subtle irony about the speaker’s attitude. If the supremacy of the new Hellenism was ultimately doomed, as was the Spartan supremacy that preceded it and the Roman supremacy that followed, and if the haughtiness of those on top for the moment indicates a blindness to the underlying pattern that this historical rhythm illustrates, the legacy of judicious integration and the influence of the Greek language, celebrated by this speaker, did in fact outlive his limited perspective for many generations. It is evidence of the poet’s mastery in this penultimate poem that he can in effect have his cake and eat it too: he can treat an attitude with irony and nevertheless succeed in persuading the reader of the truths contained in it.
The subtlety and economy of Cavafy’s late mode, in particular his ability to establish a historical context without being pedantic and to project a complex vision without being didactic ¯and sometimes without even speaking¯illustrate some of the advantages that attended his building a myth in progress over a span of years. We come to his late poems with an established code to guide our view of his protagonists, a way of life to provide the larger context for any specific drama the poet wishes to bring before us, a series of cross-references to fill out the particular historical moment depicted, and most important of all, a pattern of attitudes to help us see the implications of his expanding perspective. As we have seen, this perspective reaches out in the late years toward a general view of the human predicament that transcends both the poet’s Alexandrian ideology and his commitment to Hellenism as these were established in earlier works. The unresurrected Adonis of his Sensual City and the doomed Adonis of his Alexandrian epitaphs find a grander role in “Myris,” where the fated lovers are shown to be more than sacrificial victims to the Alexandrian way of life; their predicament becomes the occasion for a tragic act of faith, an affirmation of memory as the redeeming resource of those committed to the Alexandrian ideology, even if this resource cannot bring with it the salvation in death that Christian mystery promises. And in the late historical poems we sometimes discern the poet acting as a conscience beyond the specific attitudes represented by his protagonists¯some of these pro-Hellenic attitudes that he himself affirmed in earlier works¯a conscience that sees any individual success and any specific historical movement subject to reversal by the gods and that shows wisdom and courage residing in the recognition of human limitations.
Some of the essential terms of this perspective were established at the very inception of the Alexandrian myth, in the poet’s admonition to Antony: when the god finally abandons you, as he surely will, don’t fool yourself about what is happening, face the truth of your failed mortality with courage and dignity, and make your final act a celebration of the good life you are losing. But through the course of the myth’s progress, the poet’s voice, rich with rhetoric and didactic authority at the beginning, becomes more and more detached, masked by a variety of dramatic personae and narrative strategies, the perspective conveyed by increasingly subtle ironies until the myth itself becomes subject to a commanding irony. The good life¯the life of exquisite sensuality, refined tastes, and changing faiths¯ apparently thrives most either in a kind of sybaritic waste land or in a closed society of “initiated” outsiders who are more or less impervious to any ideology that challenges their absolute commitment to worldly pleasures; in either case, it is a life doomed in the end by its devotion to necessarily transient things: youth, physical beauty, passions of the moment (whether sexual, political, or religious), expensive habits, remembered sensations, artifice, theatrical performance on and off the stage, even a passing obsession with language and imaginative recreation (“Bring your drugs. Art of Poetry— / they do relieve the pain at least for a while”¯italics mine). The myth presents us with an image of the good life that inevitably carries within it the ripening prospect of its own death. And the poet is fully aware of this central irony; it colors his representation of the Alexandrian world throughout the canon, from “Dangerous Thoughts,” through the Alexandrian epitaphs, to “Myris.” Yet within Cavafy’s perspective, within the world he sees, there appears to be no other life more worthy of celebration, however qualified the celebration may be. The element of ambivalence in the poet’s attitude toward the mythical Alexandria he created seems, again, not the product so much of moral judgment as of tragic recognition: the good life¯good as long as it lasts, anyway¯is a doomed life like any other in this world; that is the nature of things, and it must be recognized. But the honest and honorable stance before such knowledge is not to reject Alexandria or the memory of the transient life it gave, but to celebrate it still for the passions it held, even as one sees the death it bears, whether the hour of recognition be Antony’s at the myth’s beginning or the lover’s in “Myris” as the myth nears its end.
If Cavafy’s universal perspective outside his myth depended on a certain detached irony¯too detached, perhaps, for those with a less worldly and less tragic view of life¯the detachment was not cold. The poet’s sympathy, though rarely stated, clearly goes out to those who are the trapped victims of the ironies he understands and dramatizes, especially those doomed souls with the courage to see themselves and their tragic circumstances for what they are. His mockery of self-delusion, in particular among the powerful, and his sympathy for those who face their predicament without illusions are among the qualities that make him seem so thoroughly contemporary. As ironist and realist, as champion of the outsider in a society that has “all its values wrong,” he speaks to the prevailing mood of our times. And his myth, in both its ancient and modern configurations, projects a vision out of the past that is readily translatable into the language of contemporary experience, whether we focus on the broken images of his waste land or on the commitment to hedonism and honest self-awareness that animated the special way of life at the myth’s center. Cavafy’s Alexandria, and the world of Hellenism that encircled it, so anticipated the prevailing aura of today that they now constitute a metaphor for it, in particular for the ironic scepticism about the games of nations and parties played so ruthlessly by the mighty and the not-so-mighty in recent decades, and, perhaps more significantly, for the tensions that have grown out of the shift, earlier in this century, from a faith in traditional ideologies to a faith in the self (whether conceived in Freudian or existential terms), a shift that meant to some personal liberation from outmoded taboos and to others free rein for often godless, decadent obsessions. His myth offers a model for both these perspectives, with his own perspective¯the more universal perspective that has been our subject here¯accommodating these while remaining, rather godlike, outside his creation, on a level where judgment can be suspended and mercy granted, though not to the viciously power-hungry, nor the puritanically arrogant, nor the blindly self-deceived.
The emergence of Cavafy’s universal perspective was made possible by the unique mode of his mature poems: by his progressive shaping of what became a largely self-contained world, with its particular system of values and its particular ordering of history, a world constructed out of a series of small dramas that, by association and growing implication, came to provide both their own composite statement and a context broad enough, objective enough, for the more universal dramas of his last poems. After 1910 the poems build on each other so as to create the general metaphor we have seen, and they do so in a way that also permits the poet’s final, more or less detached, illuminations. Though the progress of the Alexandrian myth may not have been plotted with total consciousness and deliberateness by the poet (it is unlikely that any poet is ever quite as consciously programmatic as his critics make him out to be), the truth is that each individual moment on Cavafy’s stage during the late years plays itself out in the reader’s mind against the mythology that earlier poems have helped to create.13 And it is this interplay between the specific moment and the general pattern that gave Cavafy occasion to demonstrate the full powers of his imagination and intellect, the full depth of his insight into the human predicament.
Cavafy’s achievement is unique in modern Greek letters, and his high standing in his own country has become increasingly secure, though full recognition came slowly, and only after his death. He has yet to find his just place in relation to the more established and influential writers outside Greece who were his contemporaries and near-contemporaries. The mythical world that he built after 1910 can be seen as equivalent in its effect to the imaginative worlds fashioned by the best novelists in this century¯Proust, Joyce, Faulkner, for example¯and it is clearly parallel to the enterprise of those important twentieth-century poets who practiced what Eliot called “the mythical method”: Yeats, Pound, Eliot himself. But, along with Yeats, Cavafy began his myth in progress earlier than the writers Eliot had in mind in his 1923 review of Ulysses, and Cavafy did so without benefit of Yeats’s influence. The dimensions of the Alexandrian’s myth may seem smaller than those of other major writers in this century, a creation drawing on fewer and shorter individual works, yet, as Eliot points out in another context (quoted by Robert Liddell in his biography),14 “a work which consists of a number of short poems, even of poems which, taken individually, may appear rather slight, may, if it has a unity of underlying pattern, be the equivalent of a first-rate long poem in establishing an author’s claim to be a ‘major’ poet.” Cavafy’s work after 1910 has this “unity of underlying pattern,” and this unity is “his grace,” as Seferis saw.15 In exploring the pattern’s development and its value in providing access to the Alexandrian’s unique mode and perspective, I hope I have confirmed that the grace given Cavafy was sufficient to ensure his place as a major poet of the twentieth century.
1. On the Greek Style, p. 121. See also chapter 4, note 1, of this book.
2. Ibid., p. 125.
3. Ibid., pp. 121-122. In a note that appeared in Theatre (Athens, March-April, 1973, p. 12), George Savidis indicates that Cavafy left some 30 “poems in progress” in various stages of completion (few more than “sketches” of poems) in his archives, each such unfinished work kept in a separate folder bearing the title of the poem and a date, presumably of first conception, the dates ranging from May 1918 to April 1932. One of the more finished of these “sketches,” entitled “Tigranokerta” and dated May 1929, accompanies the note.
4. “King Claudius,” among the unpublished poems, is somewhat longer.
5. As Savidis points out in his note to the poem in Collected Poems.
6. As Robert Liddell suggests in Cavafy; A Critical Biography (pp. 196-197), Cavafy is not a partisan in matters of religious conflict; he presents both pagan and Christian speakers sympathetically as the dramatic context requires. The poet’s own religious persuasion in his late years remained, at least formally, Greek Orthodox. Liddel indicates (p. 205) that “What or how much Cavafy himself believed we hardly know; we are told that he always wore a cross around his neck .... We know that on Good Fridays he used to wait in the street, hat in hand, for the emergence of the beautiful and touching funeral procession of Christ from the patriarchate. We do not know if this was only a love of Greek forms, or if he had any religious conviction.” And Liddell also reports (p. 206) that when the patriarch came to the hospital to visit the poet on his deathbed, Cavafy “at first refused to see him, for the visit had been arranged without his knowledge; then he consented, and apparently received the last sacraments with contrition.” For further commentary on Cavafy’s Christianity as seen from two still different perspectives, see G. P. Savidis, “Was Cavafy a Christian?” in his collection of essays Pano Nera, and George Seferis, A Poet’s Journal: Days of 1945-1951, p. 141. But however we may choose to view the poet’s personal religious persuasion, what emerges from “Myris” is not a position antagonistic to Christian ritual or favorable to pagan practice, but an evocation once again of an ideology, a commitment to a way of life, that transcends any specific religious conviction or practice, an ideology shared by “the initiated” in Alexandria and elsewhere, whether Jews in A.D. 50, pagans in A.D. 340, Christians under Julian, or Orthodox Greeks in the twentieth century. As we have seen, the tension between this ideology and all others is the occasion for a number of poems during the poet’s mature years. Liddell offers a further insight into Cavafy’s position regarding “Myris” when he suggests (p. 201) that “In a city of many religions, like Alexandria, Cavafy may have ‘verified’, indeed have lived this poem, and most painfully. A friend of his once told me that it exactly expressed his own feelings at a Jewish funeral.”
7. Jannaios “had eight hundred of the rebels crucified in Jerusalem after their wives and children had been slain before their eyes. The king himself looked on, feasting and taking his ease among his concubines” (F. E. Peters, The Harvest of Hellenism, p. 294). The Pharisees, when restored to power by Queen Alexandra after her husband’s death in 76 B.C., “took a bloody revenge upon their former tormentors” (p. 295). The phrase by John Mavrogordato appears in a note to his translation of the poem in The Poems of C. P. Cavafy, p. 183.
8. G. Lechonitis, Cavafian Self-comments, p. 32.
9. See Peters, p. 295.
10. Seferis’ commentary on this poem (On the Greek Style, pp. 147-149) is very much to the point. He speaks of “the statue that is missing” in the poem. The “pedestal” is “a king and his queen ‘successful’, ‘entirely satisfied’, conscious of their power and rank, loyal to their race and creed, proud of having continued the work of their ancestors. Their state is secure; the beautiful procession now going through the streets of Jerusalem is an impressive symbol of sovereignty. Everything is successful, healthy, prosperous.” But “the missing statue is Destruction.” Seferis elaborates: “Now it is easy to see where the emphasis is in this poem. We have only to look at the repetitions. They highlight two points: the race of Judah and the struggle of the Maccabees to make their country free and independent. These two points mark the deception, for what is happening is just the opposite. The conquest, the great Diaspora, the persecution, the endless agony of the Jews are there, muttering in their sleep, as if dreaming of Alexander Jannaeus and of his Queen and of the great Judas Maccabaeus and his four illustrious brothers, all of whom will dissolve just like dreams as soon as, in a very few years. Destruction awakes.” Robert Liddell, after quoting from this elaboration in his biography (p. 198), suggests that “this looks more like a romantic meditation upon a theme from Cavafy than criticism. Cavafy may perhaps have been living for the moment in Jannaeus’ day of triumph.” To challenge Seferis’ argument in this way¯especially his insight into “the deception” implicit in the poem’s repetitions¯is, in my opinion, to miss the point of the poem and to diminish its subtleties.
11. Timos Malanos in The Poet C. P. Cavafy (p. 393) identifies the poet and his speaker in a parenthetical comment that sets the tone for his view of the poem: “([so] thinks the character in the poem, and with him, naturally, Cavafy).” Malanos is conscious of the rhetoric in the speaker’s description of the great new Hellenic world (“The poet makes us imagine the character [“ôýðï”] of this new Greek with, truly, a great deal of skill when, in the fifth stanza of the poem, he employs something that is not his habit: the excited lyricism, the accumulation of adjectives, the phrasing influenced by Asiatic hyperbole”), but Malanos doesn’t explore further the implications of these rhetorical flourishes, and his view of the poem allows no room for irony or ambiguity. He also asks why the poet situated his speaker in 200 B.C., but his answer again doesn’t carry through to the full implication: “I think there is no other reason but that this date lies between a new high point of Hellenism (marked by the dates 212-204 B.C.) and the beginning of its decline (marked by the total destruction at Magnesia in 190 B.C.).” But Malanos’ notes on specific poems in the fourth section of his book¯especially those relating to historical poems¯are generally valuable for the Student of Cavafy’s work, and given the fact that they were originally published in 1943, they should be regarded as a pioneer enterprise.
12. The line in Greek has a colloquial tone that frustrates precise translation: “Ãéá Ëáêåäáéìïíßïõò íá ìéëïýìå ôþñá!”
13. Cavafy’s deliberately planned, gradual revelation of his erotic preoccupations, his frequent revision and re-arrangement of his work, and the continuing control he exercised over its distribution suggest that he was unusually self-conscious about the progress of his work and about the particular pattern he wished it to assume for his select group of readers. But whatever the poet’s own sense of the direction his work was taking over the years¯and there is little logical reason to think that a creator with Cavafy’s kind of aesthetic perfectionism and critical intelligence was unaware of what he was creating¯the reader of his work benefits by discerning and accommodating the unifying element, the unifying mythology, that relates one poem to another. As his fellow poet Seferis puts it, “the work of Cavafy should be read and judged not as a series of separate poems, but as one and the same poem .... Cavafy is, I think, the most ‘difficult’ poet of contemporary Greece, and we shall understand him more easily if we read him with the feeling of the continuous presence of his work as a whole” (On the Greek Style, p. 125). We get an insight into Cavafy’s own keen awareness of pattern in his work from a note that appeared in the May 1927 issue of Alexandrini Techni, a journal described by Savidis (Cavafy Editions, p. 209) as “Cavafy’s personal organ, which provided many such notes that comment on his work, notes that were apparently dictated and checked¯if not actually written¯by the poet himself” [a note with corrections in the poet’s hand survives]. The May 1927 note (quoted by Savidis, pp. 209 ff.), though unsigned as usual, seems to speak with the authority of the poet behind it, and even if the tone appears at moments rather uncharitable toward one of his important early critics, it is perhaps worth our offering a full translation of the note for the purposes of our argument here:
Now let us say a few things about the brief article by Mr. Malanos that appeared in the bulletin Notes. It is evidence of his incapacity to understand the spirit of Cavafy’s poetry. He lacks a knowledge of Cavafy’s poetics.
Cavafy never repeats himself.
Simply look at the pattern that emerges to date from his work. He has three areas of concern: the philosophical, the historical, and the erotic (or sensual).
The historical area sometimes touches so nearly on the erotic (or sensual) that it is difficult for one to classify some of the poems in these areas. Difficult: not impossible. Of course this would not be work for someone as inexperienced in criticism as Mr. Malanos.
One never finds repetition in Cavafy. Each of his poems, without exception, offers something different from all the others. This, as is well known, is one of the primary rules of composition in Cavafy. Each new poem adds something (sometimes a lot, sometimes a little) to one of the three areas mentioned above. Sometimes poems are added to an area to supplement it. Sometimes the light of a new poem subtly penetrates the half-light of an older poem (light in one poem, half-light in the other¯not haphazardly, but with great attention to poetic balance).
There is no repetition in Cavafy¯rather, there is a return to one of his three areas of concern (one of his thematic categories). Only a novice in criticism such as Mr. Malanos could misunderstand this. Cavafy, powerful craftsman that he is, knows the areas in which he has the capacity to work, and he remains within their boundaries; within these and these alone; and rightly so.
14. The Eliot quotation is from “What Is Minor Poetry?” p. 44.
15. On the Greek Style, p. 125.
|Edmund Keeley, “The Universal Perspective”. In Cavafy’s Alexandria. Study of a Myth in Progress, Harvard University Press, 1976 |