Cavafy in English accents

“ Everything is Greece to the wise man”, said Philostratus, in his Life of Apollonius of Tyana, at the beginning of the third century AD. The assertion was at once true and defiant: despite the dominance of Rome, Greek was the lingua franca of anyone of intellectual pretensions in the known world. The defiance was both manifest and implicit in Pausanias’s second-century catalogue raisonné of the classical monuments of mainland Hellas: his Description of Greece makes no mention of the temple which the Romans had built adjacent to the Parthenon. Pausanias ignores what all contemporary Greeks found it painful to acknowledge: their long subjection to Rome.

Literary Greeks have often responded to humiliation by reference to an earlier, golden age. Emigration in time is a version of pastoral which regularly appealed to Constantine Petrou Cavafy (1863–1933). Odysseus Elytis, the poet of the Cyclades, remarked, looking back on his work, “Oles tes idees mou enisiotisa”: I made islands of all my ideas. Cavafy islanded his ideas in an ocean of time past, leaving whatever he preferred to ignore below the surface. Wearing a metaphorical mask of Gyges, he repaired, for consolation, to a world of antique peripeties. When he celebrated the Spartans’ courage at Thermopylae, he acknowledged that, however noble the resistance, the Mede was always fated to get through. In another poem, he harps on the sore moment when Rome displaced the Delphic oracle as the decisive centre of Mediterranean diplomacy. Hellenic as he was, his first school was English (the family business had had a branch in Liverpool) and he retained the British habit of telling jokes with a straight face: “I have found that it helps me in my daily affairs . . . . Deep within I laugh and joke a great deal”. Cavafy’s ironies are nothing if not calculated. He recognized how often the masks of tragedy and comedy hang from the same hook.

One of his recurrent topics was the crumbling of the Hellenic hegemony imposed on the Levant by Alexander the Great and, later, by his fractious diadochi. Conquered in its turn, Greece might comfort itself with the notion that it had educated its Roman masters; but their muscular acquisition of its treasures (Mummius’ spoliation of Corinth not least) was unforgivable. So too was, and is, Lord Elgin’s appropriation of the Parthenon marbles, the retention of which by a now reduced supremacy continues to rile Athens. Who ever mentions the purloining of the fine sculptures from the temple of Aphaia on Aegina by prospecting Germans in the late eighteenth century? They are installed in a museum in Munich, after being disastrously skinned, en route, by Bertel Thorvaldsen, who made a bust of Lord Byron in Rome in 1817, seven years before the Harrovian classicist set out to help liberate Greece.

When the classical education was all but mandatory in English schools and universities, there was a canonical hedge around Greek and Roman literature. Somewhat like Odysseus, when he steered close enough to hear the Sirens’ songs, apprentice philologists were bound to a curriculum which sailed past the erotic, even though their eyes were known to stray to it. For academic and Christian purposes, the preferred Greek for love was agape, not eros. A terminus ad quem of this officious selectivity came as late as 1960, when C. J. Fordyce, in his scholarly edition of Catullus, omitted the latter’s improper “Alexandrian” poems (except for one the base implications of which he seems to have been too proper to get wind).

Alexandria, where Cavafy lived for most of his life, stood more than any other city at the opposite pole to Rome. Had Antony and Cleopatra defeated Octavian at the battle of Actium, in 31 BC (a year celebrated, à sa façon, in two of Cavafy’s sly glosses on Levantine mutability), the city founded by Alexander the Great would have displaced Rome as the capital of the known world. Cleopatra’s nose is more celebrated than her tongue, but it is reported that she spoke Greek with a Macedonian accent, even though the royal house of the Lagids – the Ptolemaic dynasty – had had no place in Macedonia for some three centuries. Long roots are a Greek speciality. Cavafy lived only briefly in Constantinople, but he never ceased to mourn (and celebrate) Byzantium. When the Turks captured Smyrna in 1922, the eloquent ironist choked out “The Gods are lost!” before being reduced to tears. He spoke Greek (and wrote in a composite of katharevousa and demotic), English (he parodied British stylishness as well as Lucian did Attic) and French; but – despite his clerkly place in the local bureaucracy – knew only dog Arabic. It is said that he never entered an Arab Egyptian home.

Like the turncoat historians Flavius Josephus and Polybius, Cavafy was a somewhat willing recruit to the dominant culture. He genuinely admired the proconsular Lord Cromer, but he was outraged by the Denshawai incident in June 1906, after which the British hanged a number of native young men, whom the poet imagined as beautiful, for the murder of a loutish British officer who had almost certainly died as a result of sunstroke. As a bookman at least (Marguerite Yourcenar noted that he was “plutôt lettré qu’érudit”, well read rather than learned), Cavafy remained an Anglophile. In 1918, E. M. Forster reports him saying that “the two peoples are almost exactly alike . . . quick-witted, resourceful, adventurous. ‘But there is one unfortunate difference between us, one little difference. We Greeks have lost our capital – and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital’”.

Forster’s description of the poet as a “Greek gentleman in a straw hat standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe” has become definitive. Few have remarked the tincture of derision in it. And what of Forster’s own stance with regard to Alexandria, whither he was sent as a Red Cross volunteer during the First World War? Did Cavafy’s immobile angularity have something to do with his slant on an Anglo-Saxon sidling into what he regarded as Hellenic space? Imperial England stood to the inhabitants of the Eastern Mediterranean as Rome had to the Greek-speakers of the same region. Both powers demanded deference; both ignored, or crushed, symptoms of native resentment.

Was the nice Mr Forster not conscious of quizzing eyes behind those thick glasses? Did he have any sense of the irony with which a local poet, who did not need to conceal his sexual appetites from his (few) readers, addressed himself to an already successful novelist, whose homosexuality had to be disguised so long as he was appealing to bourgeois Britons who had seen nothing very wrong in the defenestration, two decades earlier, of Oscar Wilde, Cavafy’s abiding pagod (as Byron said Napoleon was his)? In his Levantine obscurity, the poet was freer than the prosaic eminence, who showed a conventional face to those who bought his books and another to his close friends, at least until the posthumous publication of his sad “gay” novel Maurice. One of Forster’s happiest loving relationships was with an Egyptian tram conductor.

“You will never understand my poetry, my dear Forster”, Cavafy said, at their first meeting. The Cambridge man then surprised him by using his “schoolboy Greek” to decipher some of “The God Abandons Antony”. At that stage, Forster reported, “to be understood in Alexandria and tolerated in Athens was the extent of [Cavafy’s] ambitions”. In view of what Daniel Mendelsohn says about the poet’s relevance to today, it is notable that the lines which Forster was challenged to construe had no homoerotic undertones.

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