Indignant Immortal Nature: C.P. Cavafy

I saved C.P. Cavafy for the end of this Year of Poetry. He’s been a favorite of mine for a long, long time, the poet I turned to when I had my first chance to teach a pack of students at ACMA, the poet I went to for my first commencement as a principal back in Oregon (when rather than give a speech I simply read Cavafy’s “Ithaca” to the graduates), the poet who provides the final book by single poet this spring until I wrap up, full circle, with Yeats in a couple of weeks.

A number of years back, a surprising number as I do the math in my head right now, when a new translation of Cavafy’s poems came out I bought a copy for my dad. I’d learned to love poetry from him and thought the volume, a hardcover with a rich Greek mosaic on the dust cover, would be a good gift. It was, but that’s not the book this post is about.

IMG_4734My copy of The Complete Poems of Cavafy (translated by Rae Dalven) is a well worn paperback with a yellowed photograph of the author looking out at anyone there to see him. His tight lipped expression is that of a banker, maybe, or petty bureaucrat, which Cavafy was, working in Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria for decades. It’s an old soul that looks out through his round eyeglasses. His dark suit and thick striped tie tell a conventional story, only the handkerchief escaping from his breast pocket provides a hint at the poetic soul beneath that suit.

Cavafy was not a banker, but he would have slept with one, if the fellow was young and pretty.

A result of Cavafy’s sexuality, still taboo in the early twentieth century when he was writing, was that many of his poems, particularly the unapolgetically erotic ones,  were not published until after his death. Poems like “He Came to Read” show Cavafy’s longingly loving voice as he describes love, youth, and best laid plans oft gone awry.

He came so he could read. Lying open
are two or three books: historians and poets.
But he’d barely read for ten minutes,
when he put them aside. On the sofa
he’s half asleep. He’s completely devoted to books—
but he’s twenty-three years old, and very handsome;
and this afternoon desire has come
to his flawless flesh, and to his lips.
To his flesh, which is beauty entire,
the fever of desire has come;
without foolish shame about the form of its enjoyment. . . .”

Less shocking today that it would have been in the 1920s poems like this, and more ribald appreciations of male beauty and longing, are a facet of Cavafy’s work, sharing a very human spirit with even the more epic verses.

But Cavafy’s subject matter is not only love. Some of my favorites, and the ones I pulled from when I got to teach a class who were reading Homer’s Iliad, look back at the classics through more modern eyes.

“The Horses of Achilles” is a good example of Cavafy’s reimagining of ancient Greece. 

When they saw that Patroclus was slain,
who had been so stalwart, and strong, and young,
the horses of Achilles started to weep,
their immortal nature was indignant
at the sight of this work of death.

They would shake their heads and toss their manes,
stamp the ground with their feet, and mourn
Patroclus who they realized was lifeless— undone —
worthless flesh now— his spirit lost-
defenseless— without breath —
returned from life to the great Nothing.

Zeus saw the tears of the immortal horses
and grew sad. “At the wedding of Peleus,”
he said, “I should not have acted so thoughtlessly,
it would have been better my hapless horses
if we had not given you! What are you doing down there,
among woebegone humanity, the plaything of fate?

You for whom neither death nor old age he in wait,
you are harassed by transitory calamities.

Men have implicated you m their troubles.”- Yet the two
noble animals went on shedding their tears
for the never-ending calamity of death.”

This poem led to some of the richest discussions when I was working with the students. Fresh off their study of The Iliad, they talked about the humanity Cavafy brings to this epic story, and how differently he approaches this familiar and grand story. Whether talking about Patroclus or the patron at the cafe, Cavafy’s approach to humans is so very human.

There are other less heroic poems in The Complete Poems of Cavafy, poems that give modern readers a glimpse of taverns and old books, colored glass and broken hearts, flowers, inkwells and “Melancholy Hours.” 

The fortunate ones profane nature.
Earth is a sanctuary of sorrow.
Dawn drops a tear of unknown pain;
the wan orphan evenings mourn
and the select soul intones sadly.

I hear sighs in zephyr breezes.
I see sadness on the violets
I feel the painful life of the rose,
the meadows alive with mysterious sorrow;
and within the dense forest echoes a sob.

People honor the fortunate ones
and poetasters sing hymns to them.
But Nature’s portals are closed
to all those who indifferently, callously deride,
aliens who deride in an unfortunate land.”

He brings a poet’s eye to the city around him, and the result is small snapshots of life in a world now extinct.

But my copy of Cavafy falls open to the poem “Ithaca.”

It is, like the poem that started this series of posts (Yeats’ “Isle of Innisfree”), one of the poems that continues to inform my world view, always near the surface of my consciousness ready for the opportunity to be said aloud.

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty,
if a fine emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind,
to arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.”

Ye gads, what a poem. 

Always more of a fan of The Odyssey than The Iliad, not only does the story of Odysseus resonate with me, but Cavafy’s perspective on what that journey means reminds me to slow down and “pray that the road is long.”

In many ways that’s what this Year of Poetry has been about. Borges, Stafford, Brooks, and all the others, these are the “ports seen for the first time / with such pleasure, with such joy!” Angelou, Asghar, and Dove, these are the “beautiful voyage.”

Cavafy’s poems, familiar, beautiful, and human, are worth finding out and reading, or rereading, particularly in these uncertain times. And when I feel frustrated or overwhelmed, which is too often sometimes, I’m wise to turn to him to be reminded that if I “find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded” me, and hear him whisper to me: “With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience, / you must surely have understood by then what Ithaca means.”


Continuing this year of poetry next week with A Treasury of Great Poems.

3 thoughts on “Indignant Immortal Nature: C.P. Cavafy

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