C.P. Cavafy: Waiting for the Barbarians
CAVAFY (1863-1933) belonged to the ancient port city of Alexandria and to a cosmopolitan society — polyglot and multiracial that was wilfully dismembered time and again in history. In their arrogant insecurity, the Alexandrians created a culture and a legend, an impacted palimpsest of languages and memories, of passions and conceits from which Cavafy's provincial genius fashioned something universal. His main thrust was political, the tragic glory of Hellenistic Greece and its decadence in which historical memories and personal experiences were inextricably mixed. Towards the end of his life, Cavafy said, "many poets are exclusively poets. I am a poet-historian. I could never write a novel or a play, but I feel in me a hundred and twenty five voices that tell me I could write history. But now there is no more time."
Unlike the Nobel laureate, George Seferis (1963) who records the fate of modern man in fruity phrases, Cavafy's poems are sly, but not slight, dry but not desiccated. With pride and resignation at their heart, they express the tragedy of life — in the typically Greek tradition where the unfolding tragedy can be seen by all excepting the dramatis personae — more sensually, and the sensuality more tragically, than any of his predecessors. E.M. Forster got it right when he described Cavafy as "a Greek gentleman with a straw hat standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe."
Cavafy spoke with bitter prescience in 1904 of the barbarians who were said to be coming and whose failure to materialise disappointed the citizens whom they had come to despoil. The citizens had only to wait a few decades longer: the citizens with nothing to struggle against, themselves turned barbarians and moved imperceptibly into the cities. Who else would have wrecked the classical departments of the universities or destroyed the libraries and centres of learning just as they had once destroyed the one in Alexandria? Extend the metaphor a bit and you see parallels with citizens turning barbarians and destroying whatever is sacred in our societies.
from Cavafy's Angst
As much as you can
And if you can't shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.
Try not to degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social events and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.
The days of the future stand in front of us
Like a line of candles all alight----
Golden and warm and lively little candles.
The days that are past are left behind,
A mournful row of candles that are out;
The nearer ones are still smoking,
Candles cold, and melted, candles bent.,
I don’t want to see them; their shapes hurt me,
It hurts me to remember the light of them at first.
I look before me at my lighted candles,
I don’t want to turn around and see with horror
How quickly the dark line is lengthening,
How quickly the candles multiply that have been put out.
I should like to relate this memory ...
but it is so faded now ... scarecely anthing is left --
because it lies far off, in the years of my early manhood.
A skin as if made of jasmine ...
that night in August -- was it August? -- that night ...
I can just barely remember the eyes; they were, I think, blue ...
Ah yes, blue; a sapphire blue.
Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds on which you lay,
but also those desires for you that glowed plainly in the eyes,
and trembled in the voice-
and some chance obstacle made futile.
Now that all of them belong to the past,
it almost seems as if you had yielded to those desires-
how they glowed,
remember in the eyes gazing at you;
how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.
Half an Hour
I never had you, nor will I ever have you
I suppose. A few words, an approach
as in the bar yesterday, and nothing more.
It is, undeniably, a pity. But we who serve Art
sometimes with intensity of mind, and of course only
for a short while, we create pleasure
which almost seems real.
So in the bar the day before yesterday -- the merciful alcohol
was also helping much --
I had a perfectly erotic half-hour.
And it seems to me that you understood,
and stayed somewhat longer on purpose.
This was very necessary. Because
for all the imagination and the wizard alcohol,
I needed to see your lips as well,
I needed to have your body close.
He Came to Read
He came to read. Two or three books
are open; historians and poets.
But he only read for ten minutes,
and gave them up. He is dozing
on the sofa. He is fully devoted to books
but he is twenty-three years old, and he's very handsome;
and this afternoon love passed
through his ideal flesh, his lips.
Through his flesh which is full of beauty
the heat of love passed;
without any silly shame for the form of the enjoyment.....
He swears from time to time to
Begin a better life
Whenever though the night comes
With its own counsellings,
With its own compromises
And its own undertakings;
But whenever the night comes
With its own domination,
Of the body that wills and wants, to that same
Fatal enjoyment, lost, he goes again.
Their illicit pleasure has been fulfilled.
They get up and dress quickly, without a word.
They come out of the house separately, furtively;
and as they move off down the street a bit unsettled,
it seems they sense that something about them betrays
what kind of bed they've just been lying on.
But what profit for the life of the artist:
tomorrow, the day after, or years later, he'll give voice
to the strong lines that had their beginning here.
Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built big and high walls around me.
And now I sit here despairing.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;
for I had many things to do outside.
Ah why didn't I observe them when they were building the walls?
But I never heard the noise or the sound of the builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me out of the world.
All poems by Cavafy. (link)
November 17, 2007
C.P. Cavafy: Waiting for the Barbarians