The Sensuous Archaism of C.P. Cavafy

W.H. Auden famously observed that Cavafy’s poetry seemed to survive translation remarkably well, and that it was marked by “a tone of voice, a personal speech immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.” That Cavafy’s poetry translates so well is at least partly a function of his unique style. (The rest is the mystery of his genius.) Cavafy’s poetry is original, which means that he found a voice whose depth and range was capable of absorbing the register of other voices, and making them his own: Plutarch and Gibbon, Callimachus and Robert Browning, Baudelaire and Palladas, etc. Cavafy’s great gift is for compressing historical narratives into dramatic monologues that illuminate a shifting epoch, or for getting at the obsessions (sexual, political, aesthetic) that drive a life in one implacable direction: both predicaments are viewed as traps set by the psyche or by the Parcae, and Cavafy’s tenderness is in his level, unwavering attention to the way that lives unfold and empires expire. He is perhaps most popular today for his erotic verse, in which the Alexandrian youth in his poems seem to have stepped right out of the Greek Anthology, and into a less accepting world that makes them vulnerable, and often keeps them in poverty, though the same Hellenic amber immures their beautiful bodies.

The subjects of his poems often have a provocative glamour to them even in barest outline: the homoerotic one night stand that is remembered for a lifetime, the oracular pronouncement unheeded, the talented youth prone to self destruction, the offhand remark that indicates a crack in the imperial façade. His language is characterized by chastened diction, avoidance of overt metaphor (you’re as likely to find one of those in Cavafy’s work as to encounter a baby), and adjectives that are usually of the most general sort, emphasizing a flat fidelity to the facts of experience. These are prosaic virtues whose distilled essence passes through the translator’s filter undiluted. But to limit these works to tone of voice and narrative structure is to strip them of essential qualities of their poetry. What Auden most likely meant by Cavafy’s unique tone was an irreducible trace element in the poet’s signature style, and not the tone of individual poems, each of which is dependent upon intricate effects of prosody.  In his deeply instructive, excellent introduction to his new translation of Cavafy’s oeuvre, Daniel Mendelsohn reminds us that Cavafy’s poems are “unmistakably musical”, and that one of the goals of his book is to restore some of the richness of Cavafy’s linguistic  texture through close attention to prosody, and specifically to matters of diction, rhyme, and meter.

Diction presents a special dilemma for any translator of Cavafy. An important feature of Cavafy’s language is his skill at blending two very different registers in Modern Greek: demotic, the vernacular speech of the people, and Katharevousa, an artificial dialect introduced in the nineteenth century by government officials, and in Cavafy’s time consideredde rigueur for high literature, as well as for technical or legal terminology. (Patrick Leigh Fermor describes Cavafy’s use of Katharevousa as “. . .cunningly placed bits of whalebone in the more sinuous demotic. It is elaborate and forbidding, but it is precise.”) Mendelsohn has attempted to create a modified version of Cavafy’s “hybrid” language by drawing on resources native to English; in particular by using high-sounding Latin terms to evoke the ceremonious luster of Katharevousa, and gritty Anglo-Saxon words for the idiomatic demotic. Mendelsohn himself admits that this approach is only an approximate parallel, and provides two examples of his method in the Introduction.

In “The Seleucid’s Displeasure,” which is set in the time of the crumbling Hellenistic monarchies and the emergence of the Roman Empire, the Seleucid monarch Ptolemy VI is on his way to Rome in order to appeal for aid. Ptolemy refuses to appear before the Romans in his formal attire (as another Seleucid monarch believes he should), but chooses instead to dress as a beggar, setting aside his kingly dignity in a shrewd acknowledgment that there’s more to gain by appearing shabby. For Mendelsohn, the force of the passages hinges, primarily, on the shift from the classical-byzantine word epaiteia, which he translates as “mendicant”, to the demotic zondanevo, which he renders as “to beg:”

But the Lagid, who had come as a mendicant,
knew his business and refused it all; he didn’t need these luxuries at all.
Dressed in worn old clothes, he humbly entered Rome,
and found lodgings with a minor craftsman.
And then he presented himself to the Senate
as an ill-fortuned and impoverished man,
that with greater success he might beg.

In the second example from the Introduction, “Days of 1909, ’10, and ’11”, the shift in diction is between perikalles, an ancient Greek word that Mendelsohn translates as “beauteous”, and agori, a demotic term that he renders as “kid.” The subject of the poem is an extremely poor boy who works as a blacksmith’s shop by day, and then, so that he can buy the elegant clothes he longs for, sells his body at night.

I ask myself whether in antique times
glorious Alexandria possessed a youth more beauteous,
a kid more perfect than he — for all that he was lost:

In the first example, though “mendicant” is redolent of  the formal starch of Katharevousa, its arch-mandarin stiffness seems arbitrarily inserted rather than emerging as part of the established speech pattern, the verbal exigencies and energies necessitated by the voice. “Beg”, on the other hand, is a bit too blandly colloquial to stand out from the other colloquial phrases around it (“knew his business”, “sorry state”, “they have at bottom”), and the word has become so common its force is almost innocuous (“I begged my landlord to give me an extra week to pay the rent. . .”) Part of the problem is that English is moving between high and low registers all the time, and even a simple sentence can produce this effect without calling special attention to it. Mendelsohn’s impulse is in earnest, but the verse seems to demand a more daringly inventive, and more verbally active, solution, one that would use the vulgar tongue to get at the vulgarity of turning the posture of abject humiliation to one of calculated prostration, regardless of whether or not the word choices fit the macaronic crossword puzzle (“Gaze on, and grovel on thy face” Henry VI, i.ii.9).

In the second example (quoted above), “kid” is very effective in the anonymous, streetwise toughness of its demotic register (“hey kid”), as well as for the way that its spare monosyllable elicits the delicate, street urchin–like beauty of the Greek boys who Cavafy would solicit in Alexandria’s Attarine Quarter. In the sudden shift from the smooth-limbed vowel of “youth” to the flesh and blood consonants of “kid”, it’s as if we had passed from the ephebes of Callimachus and Meleager to the blacksmith’s poor apprentice, as easily as turning a seedy corner in Alexandria. But “beauteous” is problematic. It is hard to imagine a convincing English speaker using words like “beauteous” and “kid” in the same sentence, and the same is true in verse — unless that kind of speech had been somehow prepared for by the poem. “Beauteous” feels more like pastiche, cut from Wordsworth’s great sonnet on the grandeur of evening and pasted into Cavafy’s poem about dark Alexandrian alleys and constricted lives. The shift in diction has not been forced to the surface by the magma of prosodic (or erotic) necessity, but has been lowered in from above, like a prop for a Greek drama, designed to meet the rigid requirements of the Katharevousa / demotic grid.

It may be that Auden was correct when he said: “In English there is nothing comparable to the rivalry between demotic and purist Greek . . . We have only Standard English on one side and regional dialects on the other, and it is impossible for translation to reproduce this stylistic effect.” But verse translation is, by its very nature, riddled with impossibilities (no two languages work in the same way, etc.) and Mendelsohn is right in responding to Auden’s caution as direct challenge. Mendelsohn rises to meet this challenge in his brilliant solution for the ending of Cavafy’s very great poem, “Caesarion,” which is concerned with a figure marginalized by history, and brutalized by the imperial forces at history’s command. Caesarion was the child of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra; he was murdered (and possibly raped) by the henchmen of Octavius. Here’s how the poem ends in Mendelsohn’s version:

And so fully did I imagine you
that yesterday, late at night, when the lamp
went out — I deliberately let it go out —
I dared to think you came into my room,
it seemed to me you stood before me: as you must have been
in Alexandria after it had been conquered,
pale and wearied, perfect in your sorrow,
still hoping they’d have mercy on you,
those vile men — who whispered “Surfeit of Caesars.”

Medelsohn’s translation of the final phrase of the last line is a provocative one. In nearly every version of which I am aware, translators have used “too many Caesars” or “one too many Caesars”, both of which are faithful to the literal meaning of the Greek (polykaisarih). The slightly raised, stiltedly sophisticated pitch of “surfeit” harkens back to the beginning of the poem, and the highly artificial, propagandistic language the official histories use to stuff their hagiographies (“The unstinting laudations and flatteries”). History is rife with “atrocities of the tongue”, as Geoffrey Hill reminds us, and “Surfeit of Caesars” smacks of its fluent, ineluctably sensual appetite for violence. (Although Mendelsohn’s term does not mirror the demotic register of the original, the commonplace expression “too many cooks spoil the stew” is more fully available to it.) The full horror and brutality of what happened to Caesarion is there in the glibly rising and falling rhythms of Mendelsohn’s phrase, in the sneeringly petulant disgust that’s there in the way its sibilance spits itself out, and in the way this culminating phrase erotically savors the juice of its eloquent locution. (“Surfeit-gorged, and reeking from the stews” snorts Dryden’s Juvenal.) Here, instead of trying to fit together, or superimpose, the “high / low” pieces of the diction puzzle too neatly (and thereby calling attention to the fundamental incongruities of the two languages), Mendelsohn’s ear is fully alive to the full musical score of the poem.

Rhyme was important to Cavafy, especially in his early poems, and as a young man he was committed to the sonnet form. Mendelsohn picks and chooses when he will translate the rhymes as rhyme, and in some places their vibrancy gives a bright new pulse to poems that might otherwise have passed under the radar screen:

On one monotone day one more
monotone, indistinct day follows. The same
things will happen, then again recur —
identical moments find us, then go their way.

One month passes bringing one month more.
What comes next is easy enough to know:
the boredom from the day before.
And tomorrow’s got to where it seems like no tomorrow.

Here the monotony of “monotone day” is enacted by the metronome-like recurrence of the rhymes, a simple little tune as predetermined as the twitching hands of a clock, but diabolical in its certainty that “day” will always slant rhyme with “same”, and all that we can “know” about “tomorrow” is that nothing will change — until it does, and then there’s “no tomorrow.” This poem has a pessimistic insistence on sour prospects that’s worthy of Larkin: such days are we alive, and along the tedium of their downward spiral goes the voice of this part-time clerk for “The Third Circle of Irrigation.” (Although the comparison should not be pressed too far, to my ear Larkin and Cavafy share some common ground. Compare “Next, Please” to Cavafy’s prose poem “Ships.” “Sad Steps” also strikes Cavafian notes of entrapment and fated gloom, and a line from “Ignorance” — “for our flesh / Surrounds us with its own decisions” — could be the epigraph to many of his erotic poems, such as “Dangerous” or “He Swears”.)

On the other hand, Mendelsohn’s translation of “The City” uses rhyme with mixed results. In the original, all the rhymes are full rhymes, the pattern is a-b-b-c-c-d-d-a, and the first and last line of each stanza rhymes variations of the word for “sea” (thalassa) and for “wasted” (xalassa). This poem was very important to Cavafy. It is meant to be read first, and along with “The Satrapy” it forms the gateway by which the reader enters his work:

You said: “I’ll go to some other land, I’ll go to some other shore.
There’s bound to be another city that’s better by far.
My every effort has been ill-fated from the start;
my heart — like something dead — lies buried away;
How long will my mind endure this slow decay?
Wherever I look, wherever I cast my eyes,
I see all round me the black rubble of my life
where I’ve spent so many ruined and wasted years.”

You’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores.
The city will follow you. The streets in which you pace
will be the same, you’ll haunt the same familiar places,
and inside those same houses you’ll grow old.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t bother to hope
for a ship, a route, to take you somewhere else; they don’t exist.
Just as you’ve destroyed your life here, here in this
small corner, so you’ve wasted it through all the world.

In the Greek the desperate relentlessness of the poem is in the way the rhyming couplets and the iambic rhythms are working in lock-step, until all roads lead to the dead-end street of helpless frustration. Some of Mendelsohn’s rhymes are fresh, but in general they don’t seem integral enough to the movement of the versification; they don’t seal off the exits forcibly or inexorably enough as the lines keep turning through the poem’s determinist labyrinth. This is especially true of the thalassa / xalassa rhyme which clamps the poem shut like a steel trap — though in Mendelsohn’s version the rhymes are so faintly sounded across the distance of seven lines as to be almost inaudible: shore / year; shores / world. One could argue that Greek, being an inflected language, generates rhymes more naturally and abundantly than English, and that the jarring sound of full rhymes can sound forced in contemporary verse. But here, where the Homeric word for Odyssean wandering and the demotic word for a shipwrecked life should collide rather than merely coincide, the rhyme-wave that washes over the poem is barely a low tide ripple. (A superb example of how meter and rhyme and delicately shifting cadences can work together to create an implicit web of overwhelming, listless entrapment is in Robert Pinsky’s imitation of Cavafy’s poem, “An Old Man.”)

Cavafy’s poems are usually driven by a distinct iambic meter, and though free verse is an important part of his repertoire, it is not nearly as ubiquitous as some previous translations have implied. Mendelsohn’s versification is rich and varied, though not always supple, and if at times it veers close to choppy prose, his meter is never on automatic pilot, and the scansion is often engaged with the specific rhythmical demands of each poem in interesting ways. Mendelsohn has been rightly praised for his strong and highly original translation of “In Despair.” This poem is written in a form that Cavafy invented and used a number of times: each line has six iambic beats though the verse is broken into trimeters by a space at the center of the line. Mendelsohn’s version is especially felicitous in the way that his control of the trimeter half lines, as well as his deployment of the incessantly recurring pronouns (him, his, he), captures the chafing urgency of a futile erotic longing.

He’s lost him utterly.        And from now on he seeks
in the lips of every new        lover that he takes
the lips of that one: his.       Coupling with every new
lover that he takes       he longs to be mistaken:
that it’s the same young man,        that he’s given himself to him.

He’s lost him utterly,       as if he’d never been.
The other wished — he said —      he wished to save himself
from that stigmatized        pleasure, so unwholesome;
from that stigmatized         pleasure, in its shame.
There was still time, he said —       time to save himself.

He’s lost him utterly,        as if he’d never been.
In his imagination,        in his hallucinations
in the lips of other youths        he seeks the lips of that one;
he wishes that he might        feel his love again.

This poem gets its rhythmical vitality from the way the combination of obsession and recoil is rooted, so closely, to the tightly unfurling meter: for instance, in the way that the trimeter half lines are self-contained units of meaningful speech, and the isolation of each phrase, because of the spacing, reflects the speaker’s isolation; but also in the way the speaker’s need to hit on someone new becomes the same old turn off, and this fusing and defusing of desire is exacerbated by the continuous pressure to satisfy the the meter and syntax halfway through each interrupted line. Though the metrical and sexual torque of the poem isn’t always sustained (e.g., in the lines repeating “stigmatized”), the convolutions of rhythm and syntax consistently keep the tongue tied in a linguistic knot of libidinous angst. (I wonder, though, if the speaker doesn’t take more pleasure in these erotic deferrals and demurrals and delays than Mendelsohn’s allow — the erotic undertones of the last line is perhaps less winsome, and more self-consciously self-gratifying, in the Greek.) There are other things to admire here too, including the way the word “that” keeps resurfacing in the poem, like an obdurate reminder that the breath of the poem keeps coming up against the lips of “this” lover not “that” one, the desired one. And when the erotic charge of “takes” is immediately taken up by “mistaken,” the word play is paying more than poetic lip service to the attraction / repulsion dilemma; rather, it keeps the language on a deliciously contracted, insatiable feedback loop.

In one of Cavafy’s most famous poems, “Waiting for the Barbarians”, the speaker poses questions in the fifteen-syllable line that is the staple of the demotic folk song tradition, which Cavafy admired. The responses to those questions are given in iambic pentameter, a meter closely associated with English literature, and its great tradition of the blank verse line.

— What is it that we are waiting for, gathered in the square?

The Barbarians are supposed to arrive today.

— Why is there such great idleness inside the Senate house?
Why are the senators sitting there, without passing any laws?

Because the barbarians will arrive today.
Why should the senators still be making laws?
The barbarians, when they come, will legislate.

Mendelsohn uses hexameter verse to convey the fifteen syllable folksong line, with its marked caesuras and its bleak ballad undertones of dread conveyed in refrains that often take the form of petition and reply. (“Why are the mountains black? And why do they stand in black clouds? / Because Death is striding across them, carrying away the dead.”) “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a fin de siècle poem, and the pitch of the folksong meter carries over the cadences of nineteenth century Greece, which celebrated its hard won freedom with a rash of patriotic songs and poems composed in the folk song meter. At least some of the eerie fog of bewilderment that descends in the spaces between each stanza is due to the unsettling effect of the changing meter, and the way the iambic pentameter responds to the hexameter. The ominous but almost pastoral leisure of the unfolding hexameter questions are answered point for point by the crisp iambics; and with the clipped meter comes a deadpan tone as dry and level as the desert places at the heart of Cavafy’s best poems, and a faceless voice as factual as a reporter for the BBC. The century had changed its music, and the barbarians were indeed coming.

At the end of the poem Mendelsohn, inexplicably, breaks up the final line to weep (as Yeats would say) by cutting the hexameter short, as if he felt this effect would make the final verse sound more ironically resigned, though here something more deeply absurd than irony seems to be called for:

And now what’s to become of us without barbarians.
Those people were a sort of a solution.

To my ear his translation would have been truer to his own sense of the poem’s music, and more thrillingly dislocated, had Mendelsohn stuck to the cadence of the meter that, in the Greek folk tradition, was so often used to express the communal rhythms of ritual in times of calamity.

The outstanding virtue of Mendelsohn’s translation, as I see it, is that he has given us a new way of engaging with Cavafy’s poems by slowing down our reading of them, and making us pay closer attention to what is happening within the individual lines. That Cavafy’s singular tone is so readily available is also one of the hazards in translating him. Too often Cavafy’s poems in English sound as if they are riding the melting ice of the poet’s famous tone for all its worth, rather than keeping us alert for way the form of each poem, in conjunction with the tone, generates its own body heat of sound and meaning. Mendelsohn’s attention to versification counteracts this tendency to smooth things down to the uniform and universal Cavafian melody, and makes the poems more interesting as poems, poems with unique musical patterns — though at times he loses the intimately intricate thread of the voice in the mesh of this complex endeavor.

In Mendelsohn’s translation it’s not that every rift has been loaded with ore, but that Cavafy’s concentrated amalgam — the levels of language and the layers of history, the erotic lava that seethes in the furrows of the flattest diction — is shown to be composed of more alloys than we might have imagined. (To the Greek-less reader, the whitewashed classical statue that might have been the figure Cavafy’s poems cut in English before, is here restored to its originally vivid — even baroque–variegation of folds and colors.) Though Mendelsohn’s scholarly animus at times outweighs his literary inventiveness, and veers the craft towards the wooden wreckage of Scylla (the Charybdis of translation is strewn with the flapping silk sails of impressions too freely contrived), his buoyantly redoubtable intelligence finds salubrious ways to keep the poems afloat. Most importantly, the Cavafy he channels is serious and sensuous and linguistically entertaining enough to do what a good translation must: muffle the joyless censor’s voice in our head that says “this is translation, not poetry.”

The notes are not only full of extremely useful information (especially concerning Byzantine history and Cavafy’s literary influences), but they go beyond mere data and demonstrate connections that come from Mendelson’s deep and illuminating readings of the poems. Cavafy’s poems stand alone, but stand taller in their magisterial unity of poetic outlook and historical perspective. The notes add to our appreciation of Cavafy’s poems as supremely lucid distillations, and offer a clue to the meticulous way his mind worked.

In The Republic, Plato uses the image of a man carrying around a mirror (or else a sort of walking mirror) to describe the artist / poet who was to be banned from the ideal city because of his fixation on the shadowy world of particulars. (Plato probably had in mind Homer, and perhaps the great image of the shield of Achilles, which mirrored, in its sweeping depictions, human existence.) In a very beautiful late Cavafy poem, the image of a mirror is used to reflect the way that a poet sees — but Cavafy’s hallway mirror is more like the quicksilver mirrors in Cocteau, into which a beautiful young man is absorbed bodily in a moment of spontaneous transport:

In the entrance hallway of that sumptuous house
there was an enormous mirror, very old,
acquired at least eighty years ago.

A strikingly beautiful boy, a tailor’s assistant,
(on Sunday afternoons, an amateur athlete),
was standing with a package. He handed it
to one of the household, who then went back inside
to fetch a receipt. The tailor’s assistant
remained alone, and waited.
He drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself,
and straightening his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt. He took it and left.

The poem is masterful in its perfect lucidity and unhurried yet insistent pacing, in the calm gaze that is unobtrusively level with the mundane exchange in the front hall, while at the same time reveling in details that allow it to savor its intensely voyeuristic focus. For a moment the tailor’s assistant could be Narcissus staring into the pool of his own immaculate beauty, unaware that the pool is staring back:

He drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself.

But Cavafy’s self-immersion in the perfect image is too deep for the shallows of mythic allusion. Rather, here is a pure reflection of what happens when language and desire are mirror images, synonymous with the process of creating; as if a lifetime of self-conscious efforts at emulating beauty had dissolved in a lyric moment, a final dilation of complete erotic and artistic absorption, a quietly triumphant poem in which flawlessness and effortlessness flow into and through each other:

But the ancient mirror, which had seen and seen again,
throughout its lifetime of so many years,
thousands of objects and faces —
but the ancient mirror now became elated,
inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself
perfect beauty, for a few minutes.

The limpid surface of Mendelsohn’s language shimmers with more than a glint of the poem’s original potency, as in his attention to the xairoutan epairountan embedded rhyme, where “elated” turns to “inflated” and the erotic swell of the lines reifies the finely prolonged, rhythmic and syntactic culmination of “perfect beauty” — even as the danger of self-congratulation is quickly nipped in the bud by the acknowledgment of ecstasy’s transience: “for a few minutes.” (“Deflated” is the unstated mirror rhyme.) Just as the tailor’s boy waits for a receipt, Cavafy’s poem is the payment to him, indulging the boy’s reflection in exchange for preserving his beauty (and perhaps an additional reimbursement for sexual favor received from boys like him). And here Mendelsohn’s lucidly vibrant translation, mirroring in its making the joy that he must have taken from the original, is also a gift in return for a gift: Cavafy in English.

About George Kalogeris

George Kalogeris is the author of a book of poems based on the life of Albert Camus, Camus: Carnets (Pressed Wafer, 2006). He is currently working on a book of paired translations, Dialogos. Parts of this review will be included in a larger essay focusing on Cavafy’s erotic and historical poems, as they appear in Mendelsohn’s versions — in that piece, the critic will also discuss Mendelsohn’s translation of The Unfinished Poems, which contains works of Cavafy appearing in English for the first time.