Not Text but Texture:C.P. Cavafy's Poems Unread, Unfinished, Unwritten
C.P. Cavafy often writes poems about poets and their poems. In many cases, though, he fails to describe the poems he refers to, if he describes them at all, in more than the most detached and general terms. Yet a close reading of these apparently vague accounts of the poetry of others shows that although Cavafy does not describe that poetry, he nevertheless communicates its nature to his readers. In "Symeon," he does so by associating it with known literary figures. In most other cases, especially as "That's the One" indicates, Cavafy's poems about the poems others have written themselves constitute the poems about which he is writing. Such poems have a double existence: the very same text turns out to be both a poem by Cavafy himself and a work of the fictional poet to whom he refers without apparently citing.
The poet's common tools are peculiarly—one might say, risking a mild paradox, emphatically—absent from Cavafy's verse. One looks in vain for erudite vocabulary, complex syntax, or convoluted imagery, which is why his early Greek audience, brought up on the grandiloquence of Palamas and Sikelianos (two of the national poets of Greece during the first half of the twentieth century), so often dismissed him as prosaic and cerebral. Yet Cavafy's singular power to induce his readers to feel the very moods he conjures in his poetry, to breathe directly the atmosphere he concocts, and to compel us to see in exquisite detail the images at which he no more than hints is as concrete as its sources still remain mysterious. W.H. Auden was aware of that mystery, but unfortunately he gave it a name: "What, then, is it in Cavafy's poems that survives translation and excites?" he asked. "Something I can only call, most inadequately," he answered, "a tone of voice, a personal speech." Inevitably, Cavafy's readers have returned to Auden's phrase again and again, and the very name of the phenomenon has gradually been assumed to be its explanation. [End Page 1]
But the question is, what is it that generates Cavafy's "tone of voice," his "personal speech"? It is undeniable that his similes are often childish:
The future's days stand before uslike a row of little lighted candles—golden, warm, and lively little candles.
Days gone by are left behind,a gloomy line of burnt-out candles("Candles," 1893/1899)1
His metaphors are elementary:
Half past midnight. Where did the time go.Half past midnight. Where did the years go.("Since Nine o'Clock," 1917/1918)
He scarcely uses adjectives, and those he does use he repeats over and over again. In "Kaisarion" (1914/1918; Cavafy 1992, 82–83), we find a sarcastic account of the banality of the language the Ptolemies chose for glorifying themselves on their public monuments:
The lavish praise and flattery are much the samefor each of them. All are brilliant,glorious, mighty, benevolent;everything they undertake is full of wisdom.As for the women of their time, the Berenices and Cleopatras,they too, all of them, are marvelous.
But exactly the same can be said of Cavafy's own language for the many young lovers who inhabit his poems: they are all young, handsome, attractive, delicate, sensitive, sensual, and erotic but not much else; everything they undertake usually fails; and they often die (as for the women, they are not there at all). It is almost as if Cavafy wants his images to lack clear contours or specific content. And when in "Kaisarion" the boring Ptolemaic inscriptions finally give way, the vision of Caesar and Cleopatra's son (murdered when he was only 17 years old by Octavian) that replaces them is really no more than generic—indeed, to use Cavafy's own word, it is «ἀόριστη» (aoristi, vague, imprecise, or, as translated by Keeley and Sherrard, "indefinite"):
Ah, there, you have arrived, with your indefinite [αόριστη]charm. History [ἱστορία] contains onlya very few lines about you,and so I molded you more freely in my mind.I made you handsome and sensitive. [End Page 2] My art gives your facea dreamy, attractive beauty.
No other poet has written so many love poems about beautiful young men about whom he has little more to say than that they are beautiful and young. People, objects, and landscapes enter Cavafy's verse with the lightest step, the most indefinite charm. In this connection, it is important to note the wordplay in the Greek words «ἀόριστη» and «ἱστορία» (istoria, "history," but also "story") in the first two lines of the passage above (which are the full poem's central lines). Each word is an anagram (or, more precisely, an anaphone) of the other. The anaphony allows Cavafy to perform what he is telling us explicitly: the areas of history that lend themselves most to poetic inspiration are those in which the details are vague and indefinite (the story aspect of istoria)—details that are sometimes counterbalanced by very specific accounts of the actual setting (the history aspect of istoria) within which the indefiniteness of the events depicted emerges.
But much else is indefinite in Cavafy's poetry. It is hard to know, for instance, what one can imagine while eavesdropping on a silversmith as he guides a client around his shop and describes one of his works in "Craftsman of Wine Bowls" (1903/1921; Cavafy 1992, 119):
On this wine bowl—pure silver,made for the house of Herakleides,where good taste is the rule—notice these graceful flowers, the streams, the thyme.In the center I have put this beautiful young man,naked, erotic, one leg still danglingin the water.
Cavafy's vagueness is unmatched, and yet his poems are thoroughly moving and irresistibly evocative. How to account for it?
No single answer, no master key can resolve Cavafy's subtle polyphony—the many voices, moods, styles, topics, persons, and passions that make up his poetic production. But we can learn something about it from a family of particularly peculiar prosaic poems, whose sometimes overpowering effect forces the question upon us.
We begin with a poem set in the fifth century of our era in Syria. A sophist—part philosopher, part literary critic, part rhetorician—has been asked to say what he thinks of the poetry of a certain Lamon. Both poet and sophist are fictional. They exist as characters in Cavafy's "Symeon" (1917), named after the famous Christian hermit who spent as long as 36 years on a small platform [End Page 3] at the top of a tall column. The sophist's first answer, in the poem's opening lines, cannot fail but remind us of the words most professors have used in some version or other, at least once or twice:
Yes, of course, I am familiar with his new poems,Beirut is absolutely wild about them.But I will read them carefully another day.
Unlike many professors, our sophist is not too busy to read the poems; something else is the matter:
I can't today, I feel strangely unsettled.
Still, mindful of his reputation, the sophist cannot just let it go at that; he knows that some further comment is required of him, and he duly offers it; urbanity prevails:
His Greek is certainly more learned than Libanius's.But better even than Meleager? I don't think so.
But the sophist really is unsettled; his troubles shatter his polished façade, take over, and sweep away both Lamon's poetry and its criticism:
Ah, Mebis, why bother with Libanius, and books,and all these trifles! . . . Yesterday, Mebis, by chance,I found myself at the foot of Symeon's pillar.I squeezed in among the Christians,who prayed and worshiped silently,and bowed before him. But, since I am not a Christian,my spirit couldn't be, like theirs, serene—and so I shook from head to foot in agony,and I was horrified, dismayed, and aghast.
Ah, stop smiling. For thirty-five years—think of it—winter and summer, night and day, for thirty-five yearsatop a pillar, he lives and suffers, and bears witness.Before you and I were born—I am twenty-nine,and you, I think, are younger—before you and I were born—try to imagine that—Symeon climbed up that pillarand there he has remained, face-to-face with God.
My mind isn't fit for work today.—
The sophist is perfectly aware of the difference between Symeon's silent suffering and the noisy squabbling of Beirut's intellectuals, between spiritual and [End Page 4] social climbing, between an inarticulate faith that gives consistent shape to a whole life and a fluent cleverness that sees in language primarily a tool of accommodation—but his clarity lasts only a moment: life must go on. So the sophist collects himself, and the poem closes with his return to the everyday:
Still, Mebis, it might be better to let it be knownthat no matter what other sophists may claimI, for my part, consider Lamon to bethe foremost poet of Syria.
Cavafy was always fascinated by characters who fail for various reasons to realize their vision of a better life and inevitably end up back on the path from which for only a moment they were ready to swerve. His attitude toward them is usually taken to be ironic, contrasting noble aspiration with vulgar compromise. For example, the eponymus hero of "Orophernis" (1904/1916, Cavafy 1992, 60–61), a wastrel whose beauty partly redeems him in Cavafy's eyes, tries for once to behave as his noble ancestry dictates; his failure is the object of Cavafy's sarcasm:
For a little while he gave up lechery and drink,and ineptly, half dazed,tried to start an intrigue,do something, come up with a plan,and he failed pitifully and came to nothing.
The sophist of "Symeon" is one of these characters. Although he sees that Symeon's passion dwarfs Lamon's verse and is moved by it, he returns to his earlier path and does at last just what he was asked to do at first: he issues a public verdict, whose brilliant evasion of a direct comparison between Lamon and Meleager shows him at his most worldly, cunning, and astute. This does not seem to be a man Cavafy admires.
Cavafy's ironic contempt might suggest that—set beside Symeon's real, extraliterary suffering—poetry is in fact a mere trifle. And so it would be, if it were not a poem that says that poetry is a trifle—a curiously self-undermining task for a poet to undertake. Why waste your time writing a poem that says that writing poems is a waste of time? Because, Cavafy answers, poetry is not at all a waste of time. But in order to hear his answer we must realize that Cavafy's irony is not exhausted on the sophist's easy accommodation. His irony lives on, and its afterlife, far from supporting the poem's obvious message, puts it in doubt and in the end asserts and reinforces the power of poetry and art. It also turns out to be a much kinder and more generous irony than we often suppose it to be. [End Page 5]
Within the fictional world of the poem, the sophist admits that Symeon's life, which he describes for Mebis, obliterates the poetry of Lamon. Yet in the end he chooses to align himself with Lamon and not with Symeon. Why? It is tempting to say that it must be the kind of poetry Lamon writes—a kind of poetry that the sophist may dislike. But what kind of poetry is that? The poem itself seems to tell us nothing about it: how can we possibly judge the notional work of a fictional poet? Only, I suggest, if we follow the detour to which we are led by Cavafy's habitual indirection, his awareness, as Nabokov (1996) writes in Pale Fire, that "this / [is] the real point, the contrapuntal theme; / Just this: not text, but texture." The poem's filigree pattern, its lacework structure, where Cavafy's own poetry resides, contains the poetry of Lamon within it.
Already popular in Beirut, Lamon knows the added value of the sophist's endorsement, which he seems to solicit. To readers of Cavafy, such an attitude cannot fail to call to mind Lamon's rhyming counterpart, the sculptor Damon in "The Retinue of Dionysus" (1903/1907). While fashioning his greatest work so far, Damon can think only of the rewards it will bring him: the fee the King of Syracuse has promised to pay him, which will allow him to live "like a wealthy man" and take an active part in public life. Damon is the "most accomplished" sculptor in the Peloponnese, just as Lamon's poetry is wildly popular in Beirut. The sophist admits that Lamon's Greek is even more learned than the famously learned Greek of Libanius, the fourth-century rhetorician and sophist who wrote with staggering complexity in his effort to recapture the lost simplicity of Attic prose. Still, he is weaker than Meleager, although the sophist—political creature that he is—does not insist on it and does not repeat his original judgment in his official statement. Meleager's epigrams—most of them about love of women and boys, some about death and loss, several quite obscene—are among the most subtle, complex, and learned works in the Greek anthology; full of allusion, word-play, and self-reference: they are also—in contrast, say, to those poems of Callimachus with which Cavafy was familiar2—among the most moving and affecting.3
Cavafy is not simply dropping names here; he is giving us important information. He uses the sophist's reaction to suggest that Lamon's writing, formally competent and technically accomplished as it is (in that respect like Libanius's prose), is lacking in emotion (in contrast to Meleager's poetry). Yet he is not simply making the hackneyed point that poetry that is only technically adept is second-rate. He pits Lamon's fluent verse against the wordless worship surrounding Symeon's silent suffering, which renders even this accomplished rhetorician dumb: the sophist is stunned by Symeon, and his account becomes unpolished and rough, his syntax irregular. The poem contains a [End Page 6] double contrast: on the one hand, the sophist's eloquent praise of Lamon's eloquent verse; on the other, his inarticulate admiration of Symeon's inarticulate passion.
But the sophist is wrong in both respects. Symeon is not obviously to be preferred. Passion that is merely mute is not clearly superior to verse that is only elegant. The sophist's account of Symeon lacks a clear point, which is why he speaks of it in relatively artless prose and why he retreats from it to the safety of Lamon's cold verse. His words become poetry only when Cavafy presents these two distinct sorts of artlessness in his own artful manner. Poetry materializes only when the separation of technical virtuosity from dumb emotion, which Cavafy deplores, emerges through his masterful conjunction of delicate technique and passionate intensity.
This combination, which also brings together at least two other distinctions Cavafy was suspicious of—Asia versus Greece, paganism versus Christianity—is one of the many versions of the ethnic, linguistic, cultural, and religious mixture that yields Cavafy's highest term of praise: "Hellenic." The final irony of this poem is that despite appearances its hero is not really Symeon but Meleager—or rather Meleager's modern equivalent, Cavafy himself, the poet whose learning serves his appreciation of passion and whose emotions are tempered by the discipline of craft.4 This is a deep and constructive irony. It makes art out of disparate elements and holds them in a kind of suspension. It is close to the type of irony Maria Boletsi has called "reluctant" (2014, 70–74), an irony that refuses to identify fully with either pole of any absolute distinction, whether between reason and passion, technique and inspiration, or (Boletsi's main concern) "civilization" and "barbarism." For example, in a young man who like everyone who lived at the edges of the Greek world represents a mixture of Syrian, migrated Greek, Armenian, and Mede, it finds the face of one of the purest and most beautiful aristocrats of classical Athens, Plato's Charmides ("In a Town of Osroene," 1916/1917). It composes an "Epitaph for Antiochus, King of Kommagini" (1923; Cavafy 1992, 125), another out-of-the-way little kingdom, which concludes:
He was just, wise, courageous.In addition he was that best of all things, Hellenic—mankind has no quality more precious:everything beyond that belongs to the gods.
This is the same irony that famously allows Cavafy to say of himself, "I am Hellenic—careful: not Greek [Hellene] nor Hellenizing—but Hellenic. Very Hellenic!"5 It understands that the greatest moments of Hellenism have always [End Page 7] been its least insular, when it has acknowledged its multiplicity, adapted to new conditions, and adopted new configurations; when it was at home in many places at the same time and refused to identify itself with a fixed, exclusive (and equally illusive) set of features. These features are specific versions of the general characteristics that Boletsi identifies more abstractly in discussing the irony of the last line of Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians": "They were, those people, a kind of solution," she writes. "The doubt encapsulated in the phrase 'a kind of' betrays a hesitation that can be viewed as a sign of negotiation between the two traditions, instead of a straightforward replacement of one with the other" (Boletsi 2014, 68).6 It is an irony, finally, that accepts even the sophist's weakness with a kind of capacious generosity. What else can a man of mere words do, the poem seems to ask, when Symeon's unaccountable life robs him of everything he knows and relies on and reduces him to babbling, but return to the everyday and take up his life again where he had left it? It may be both sad and funny that the sophist is like that—like most of us, that is—but Cavafy takes absolutely no malicious pleasure in it.
"Symeon" belongs to a family of poems about poems that have almost nothing to say about the poems they are about. They are in that respect typical of Cavafy's vague descriptions of his subject-matter generally. But what these poems show, surprisingly, is that Cavafy's vagueness, far from being an obstacle to a strong poetic effect, is one of its canniest means. Consider, for example, the poem "That's the One" (1898/1909):
Unknown in Antioch, a stranger from Edessa7 produces a stream,a torrent of writing. And, finally—there—it's all done.The last hymn is complete. That is the consummation
of his work—eighty-three poems in all. But so much writinghas exhausted the poet—all that versification,the strain of following the rules of Greek formation;his life has now turned flat, dull, totally unexciting.
But one thought all at once removes his desolation:The wondrous phrase, "That's the one,"the phrase that Lucian heard once, in a dream.
In The Dream, or Lucian's Career, the great Syrian author of the second century a.d. tells us that he once dreamed that Sculpture and Culture competed for him. Culture won because, among other things, she told him that if he devoted himself to her he would become so famous that people everywhere would recognize and point him out to one another (Harmon 1921, 218–224). Not that our nameless poet, sadly, is likely to hear that wondrous phrase. As one critic [End Page 8] claims, writing is not "a need of his soul, but an exhausting and boring job, fueled by his ambition" (Ilinskaya 1983, 155)—a view she supports by appealing to Cavafy himself, who described the poet to a friend as a "fake": "Art was not for him a need, a love, but only a means to an end. His writing—instead of giving him the joy, the delight of creating new, unknown sounds—was a toil, an imposed chore of versification" (Ilinskaya 1983, 156).
This is certainly a reasonable interpretation, and in the end it proves correct. But how do we get there? How do we know, since we know virtually nothing about the nameless poet's work, whether his is a philistine's poetry? It will not do to say that this is because he is thinking of the fame he hopes to achieve: that, after all, was centrally responsible for Lucian's own decision to become an author and not a sculptor. To think that Cavafy is here expressing his contempt for "the social aspects of artistic creation" without showing what's wrong with such an approach neither explains the poem's persistent resonance nor saves it from being yet another obvious illustration of the shopworn idea that poetry without inspiration is no good—an idea that "Symeon" has already complicated for us. To come to terms with the poem, to see exactly what it is that it says and why saying it is an accomplishment and not just more versification, as it would otherwise be, we need to understand what justifies Cavafy's calling the poet a "fake," why he feels he can say that poetry is for him only a means to an end and a toil, why it is appropriate for him to take an ironic stand toward the poet's hope of hearing the words once promised, and delivered, to Lucian. Cavafy, in fact, explained his use of "versification" (or, rather, "verse-making") in a comment to his brother John, who was translating an earlier version of the poem: "'Στιχοποιΐα' means 'verse-making' [in English in the original]. I used the word 'στιχοποιΐα' on purpose, in order to show that this is not about some great poet (you could never call a great poet a Στιχοποιός [versifier]). . . . I want to describe an ambitious versifier without, however, making in addition any pointedly [in English in the original] humiliating remark concerning him" (quoted in Haas 1983, 85). We still do not know, though, what makes Cavafy consider the nameless poet a (mere) versifier.
To understand Cavafy's reasons, we need to read once again for texture, not text. We must focus on what Nietzsche (1992, 679) called "that filigree art of grasping and comprehending in general, those fingers for nuances, that psychology of 'looking round the corner'" of his own writing, which is also the very art of Cavafy's poetry.
The metaphor of "looking round the corner" is exactly right here. If we look at the poem, so to speak, from the side, not so much at its content but at its performance, we will find our questions, as my rather forced translation tries [End Page 9] to show, answered yet again within the poem itself. Its rhyme-scheme—abc/ dccd/cba—is extraordinarily tight. It is almost artificially formal, a pyramidal structure whose apex is formed by the terms "versification" and "Greek formation." Their position, along with the fact that they represent the most common rhymes of the poem (c . . . cc . . . c), makes the activities they name absolutely central to Cavafy's poem. And that, along with the fact that its tightly regimented verses—each one matching exactly the number of syllables in its rhyming counterparts—shows them to have been equally important to the poems of Cavafy's nameless poet and his main concern.
In other words, "That's the One" contains—it actually is—a sample of the poetry it seems to say nothing about! Instead of alluding to Libanius and Meleager, Cavafy now shows us directly, if we know where to look, the kind of poetry he talks about. Such poetry, he is saying, explains, at least at first sight, the irony in the Edessene poet's ambition: his poetry fails to fulfill it, and he remains "unknown"; the poem's very first word remains his most accurate description, and the rest of the poem shows why. The idea that poetic recognition cannot come from works that are merely technically accomplished has been transformed and is no longer shopworn, communicated as it is through a work that—in the most technically accomplished way—creates the merely technically accomplished works it disdains.
The irony of "That's the One" is not limited to its last stanza, as we might have thought at first. What gives that irony a point is what I have called its afterlife, which shows why the poet's dream is vain by presenting an instance of this poor man's poetry even as we are asking where it has gone wrong. In its afterlife, Cavafy's irony plays more than the negative role to which the last stanza confines it: it actually creates the object the poem discusses. There is no lack of information here; Cavafy does not expect his readers to take his word for the poet's shortcomings; he gives us the kind of poem he scorns. In a most remarkable manner, Cavafy has created, through a single poem, two distinct works of art: read as the work of the unknown poet, a poem that is merely prosaic; read as Cavafy's own, an inspired accomplishment.
In a most intriguing and ironic manner, "That's the One" illustrates, before it ever appeared, Borges's famous tongue-in-cheek account of the effort of a twentieth-century author to rewrite—not to copy but to produce anew—Cervantes's Don Quixote (Borges 1998, 88–95).8 Borges cites a passage from Cervantes's Don Quixote9 and a passage from Pierre Menard's—each one consisting of exactly the same words—and argues that Cervantes's praise of truth as, among other things, the daughter of history "is mere rhetorical praise of history." When Menard, "on the other hand," writes that truth is the daughter [End Page 10] of history, "the idea," appearing at the same time as William James's Pragmatism, "is staggering." As for their style, Menard's is "archaic . . . somewhat affected," while Cervantes writes "the Spanish of his time with complete naturalness" (Borges 1998, 94). Could Borges then have been right, after all, when he made the apparently counterintuitive claim in an examination of Kafka's precursors "that each writer creates his precursors" (Borges 2000, 108)? And Borges continues: "Kafka's idiosyncrasy, in greater or lesser degree, is present in each of [his precursors'] writings, but if Kafka had not written we would not perceive it; that is to say, it would not exist." Had Borges not written, would his idiosyncrasy have been present in Cavafy's poem?
Here, once again, is Nabokov, commenting on Gogol: "We are faced by the remarkable phenomenon of mere forms of speech directly giving rise to live creatures" (Nabokov 1971, 78). That, for Cavafy, is exactly the power of art, which gives his own art its power. And the magic of that power also transforms Cavafy's own ironic attitude toward the unknown poet. We now have one of his poems. His struggle has not been completely in vain: he is the one.
The poem, though, contains a third twist, which reminds us directly that, of course, the unknown poet's work was created for him by Cavafy, who also, perhaps even more than his fictional poet, is "the one" the poem is about. For, it turns out, "That's the One," which was composed in August 1898 and identifies itself as the 83rd of the nameless poet's 83 poems, is the 83rd among the works Cavafy preserved from the roughly 135 poems he had composed by 1898! If that is right,10 the poem acquires yet another intriguing dimension. In 1898, when he wrote "That's the One," Cavafy was himself still more or less "nameless." And if the nameless poet is a figure of Cavafy, who was in fact a great versifier but also much more, then the end of the poem need not be read at all ironically. The poet's wish is actually granted, since Cavafy ceased to be nameless and certainly heard "the wondrous phrase"—a synecdoche for his own rising reputation—in his later years. "That's the One," then, is at once a mere versification by a nameless poet, an inspired account of such versification by Cavafy, and a prediction about Cavafy himself—no mean accomplishment for a poem of just ten short lines!
"Symeon" and "That's the One" are about poems that have supposedly been written, but which we have not read. By contrast, "For Ammonis, Who Died at 29, in 610" (1915/1917) is about a poem that has not yet been written at all. A poet, Raphael, is being asked to compose an epitaph for Ammonis, another poet who has just died. Raphael, the speaker says, is best suited for composing the kind of "tasteful and refined" (καλαίσθητον και λεῖον) verse that will do justice (ὡς ἀρμόζει) to their friend. The speaker's language is [End Page 11] itself tasteful and refined, partly in katharevousa, the purist idiom, elements of which were used by the higher and middle classes until the mid-twentieth century in Greece. But the speaker, as if forgetting his confidence in Raphael's talent, goes on to give him detailed instructions. Up to this point, the tastefulness Cavafy's poem both values and expresses seems to refer appropriately to Ammonis's own poetry. Yet once it is settled that Raphael will make it his subject ("Of course, you will speak about his poetry—"), the subject shifts abruptly, as Cavafy's dash indicates, to Ammonis's beauty, that "delicate beauty," which turns out to be what the allusions to elegance and grace were also about all along. And now a new feeling and a new form of expression enter the poem. The purist elements recede as the speaker adopts a more consistently demotic Greek. The poem contrasts the two idioms as it also contrasts Greek with Coptic (the native tongue of Raphael, Ammonis, and their friends), elegance with passion, technique—once again—with feeling. Raphael's full «μαστοριά» (mastery) is needed here. His Greek, though «πάντοτε ὡραία καί μουσικά» (always musical and graceful), is still "a foreign tongue." And it is in that foreign tongue that Ammonis's friends' "sorrow and love" must find a place: Raphael must "pour" his "Egyptian" feeling into his delicate Greek. But «χύσε», the verb translated as "pour," is also a common Greek word for "ejaculate," which gives palpable physical substance to the more refined expression of the image in the verse and complicates to no end the polished elegance originally requested for the epitaph. A mixture of Greek delicacy and Egyptian passion, poetic refinement and passionate sensuality, the poem must reflect Ammonis's own mixture, which Cavafy here calls "Alexandrian": it must show in the end that "an Alexandrian is writing about an Alexandrian."
However appropriate, this reading, even as it draws attention to Cavafy's canny language and his resonant last verse, leaves the poem no more alive than Ammonis himself; it does not explain how by the end of the poem Ammonis's death has somehow become—as it has—our own loss, how his image has been fixed in our mind. In order to see how the poem produces its effect, we must realize that the speaker's instructions to Raphael, as presented by Cavafy, actually constitute Ammonis's epitaph: when we have read the poem, we have also read the epitaph itself. Cavafy creates the epitaph even as he refers to it as an unwritten poem, and he has given it every feature that his speaker has requested. Ammonis has actually been immortalized just as his friends wanted—in terms both moderate and fiery—whether or not Raphael ever composed his verses, with whatever success, in some fictional world.
An almost alchemical transformation of imagination into reality takes place in the alembic of Cavafy's verse. What better place to watch that [End Page 12] transformation, then, than in "According to the Formulas of Ancient Greco-Syrian Sorcerers" (1931), which actually appeals to magic in order to bring such a transformation about:
"Is there some potion, distilledfrom magic herbs," a man—both sensual and refined—asked,"is there some potion made according to the formulasof ancient Greco-Syrian sorcerers,which, even for one day (if that's as long as itspower lasts) or even for a shorter time,could bring my twenty-third yearback to me; bring back to me my friendwhen he was twenty-two—bring back his beauty and his love.
Is there some potion made accordingto the formulas of ancient Greco-Syrian sorcerers,
which, as it returns me to the past,could also bring back our little room to me."
In this monologue, a man wishes that a magic potion could bring back his youth, his lover, and the room they shared with each other. Again, there are no details—nothing more than platitudes, at any rate: the man wants to be 23 years old once again, together with the beautiful boy of 22 who loved him; their room was small: that is as vague as poetry can get. And yet the poem is somehow strangely and sadly poignant. I am sure that is partly because although his speaker is asking a question, Cavafy omits question marks altogether, which suggests that the man is already resigned to the fact that no such potion exists. Through his sadness, however, the fragments of the past the speaker cannot bring back for himself are transformed into reality for us. Although he may not—cannot—know it, this "aesthete," as Cavafy describes him, has created a real image of his past for the poem's audience. The content of that image is vague and lacks vivid detail. But the man's attitude toward it is richly textured: his quiet resignation and the very vagueness of his image indicate how distant that past has become for him. He is aware of that distance, but as he mourns its loss, his past magically is made concrete and plangent for us. His sadness, his grief, shows that it is still living within him, even though he may not himself realize it. Cavafy's verse outdoes any potion made according to the formulas of ancient Greco-Syrian magicians. His irony is, once again, kind and generous. It gives poetry the power of magic, transforming fragments of the dead past into present feeling and, so transformed, they become vivid, whole, and alive. [End Page 13]
The metaphorical fragments of the past of "Greco-Syrian Sorcerers" become literal—fragments of a broken inscription—in "During the Month of Athyr" (1917):
I can just barely read the writing on the ancient stone."Lo[r]d Jesus Christ." I can discern a "So[u]l.""During the mon[th] of Athyr"11 "Leuciu[s] went t[o sl]eep."Where there is mention of his age "He lived to be,"the Kappa Zeta12 tells me a young man went to sleep.Within the damaged part I see "[H]im . . . Alexandrian."Then there are three extremely mutilated lines—though I can still make out some words—"our tear[s]" and "pain,"then "tears" again, and "mourned by [u]s his [f]riends."I think that Leucius, greatly loved, caused many a friend to weep.During the month of Athyr Leucius went to sleep.
My translation is stilted and takes great liberties with the penultimate verse, which in Greek rhymes "sleep" with "loved." But the closing rhyme is crucial, and without it the poem fails to make its point. Literally, "During the Month of Athyr" gives us fragments of an inscription; metaphorically, it gives us fragments of a life—in form, except for its iambic meter (and the final couplet), it seems closer to a scholarly paper than to a poem. But Leucius is not just anybody; like Ammonis, he too belongs to the ethnic and religious mixture Cavafy's poetry celebrates. The inscription is written in the Greek of paganism but recalls a young man who dies a Christian death during a month named for an Egyptian goddess, deeply mourned by his friends, some of whom were certainly his lovers. Leucius, the inscription tells us, is, like Ammonis, an Alexandrian. And the fragments of his life—like the fragments of his tomb's inscription, two of which (in the third line) cease to be fragments and, when united, form the poem's last verse—are put together and turned into poetry by means of the closing rhyming couplet, which confirms that these fragments, isolated as they seem to be, have been transformed into the materials of composition. The pieces are molded into a full epitaph, a full life, by becoming parts of a poem.13
Leucius's epitaph, although it did not survive, was once complete. "Dareios" (1917/1920; Cavafy 1992, 107, modified), by contrast, concerns a poem that was never finished—not as originally planned within the world of the work, at any rate:
Phernazes the poet is at workon the crucial part of his epic: [End Page 14] how Dareios, son of Hystaspes,took over the Persian kingdom.(It's from him, Dareios, that our glorious king,Mithridates, Dionysus, Noble Father, descends.)14But this calls for serious thought: Phernazes has to analyzethe feelings Dareios must have had:arrogance, maybe, and intoxication? No—more likelya certain insight into the vanities of greatness.The poet thinks deeply about the question.
But his servant, rushing in,cuts him short to announce very important news:the war against the Romans has begun:most of our army has crossed the borders.
The poet is dumbfounded. What a disaster!How can our glorious king,Mithridates, Dionysus, Noble Father,bother about Greek poems now?In the middle of a war—imagine, Greek poems!
Phernazes gets all worked up. What a bad break!Just when he was sure to distinguish himselfwith his Dareios, sure to makehis envious critics shut up once and for all.What a setback, terrible setback to his plans.
And if it's only a setback, that wouldn't be too bad.But can we really consider ourselves safe in Amisos?The town isn't very well fortified,and the Romans are the most awful enemies.
Are we, Cappadocians, really a match for them?Is it conceivable?Are we to compete with the legions?Great gods, protectors of Asia, help us!
But through all his nervousness, all the turmoil,the poetic idea keeps coming round insistently:arrogance and intoxication—that's the most likely, of course:arrogance and intoxication are what Dareios must have felt.
Phernazes, a court poet—a creature of politics, intrigue, and ambition, not yet quite successful—is composing an epic poem intended to flatter his patron by likening him to the Great King of Persia, whom Mithridates claimed as his [End Page 15] ancestor, in the hope of winning his King's favor once and for all. But Phernazes is in a tight spot: he has come to the point where he needs to explain what prompted Dareios to take over the throne of the Persian Empire 400 years earlier. His first thought is that Dareios, who came to power through treachery and murder, was moved by "arrogance and intoxication," by blind ambition; but that is not a parallel that Mithridates, who cheated and murdered his own way to the throne, is likely to appreciate. And so cunning Phernazes abruptly blocks that line of thought and tries out a more serviceable interpretation: "More likely a certain insight into the vanities of greatness."
Just as he seems to settle on this diplomatic version, Phernazes finds out that Mithridates has gone to war against Rome. The poet's ambitions for success at court—a petty version of Dareios's' and Mithridates' own—are dashed. Worse, he fears that a Roman victory will endanger not just his status but his very life; the poet appears to have no more time for Greek poems than his own king: "Great gods, protectors of Asia, help us!" And yet, despite his own worst intentions, Phernazes proves better than he seems. While, earlier, poetry was his means for social advancement, he now becomes its instrument. Personified, the active agent for whom Phernazes has become a mere vessel, "the poetic idea keeps coming round insistently: / arrogance and intoxication—that's the most likely, of course: / arrogance and intoxication are what Dareios must have felt." No wonder Phernazes had not succeeded at the court; he was more of a poet than he knew. Through one stroke of Cavafy's pen, the one genuine poetic thought Phernazes has shows that his artistic sense is stronger than his own arrogance and intoxication. It reveals what really moved both kings; it completes Phernazes' poem on Dareios; and in a final ironic twist, it transforms the poem from a long, unfinished epic into a polished, pithy epigram, which carries with it a distant echo of Callimachus.
In these poems, it is as if things—in this case, other poems—that belong to a world outside Cavafy's verse are filled out, perfected, and even created by his art. The idea that the everyday world supplies Cavafy only with fragments of life, pieces of ideas, sensations and experiences, or incomplete plans, which are then completed through his verse, is central to his work. He seems to say as much in "I've Brought to Art" (1921):
I am in a contemplative mood. I've brought to Artsensations and desires— Some things half-seen,faces, or lines; some hazy memoriesof loves cut short Let me submit to her.She knows how to give shape to Beauty's Form;almost imperceptibly completing life,joining impressions together joining the days.
[End Page 16] That is a poetics that seems perfectly illustrated by another short poem, "Distant" (1914):
I would like to speak of this memory . . .but it's become so faint . . . it seems like nothing—because it is so distant, back in the years when I was still a boy.
Skin as if made of jasmine . . .that August—was it in August?—evening . . .I can barely remember the eyes: they were, I seem to think, deep blue . . .Ah yes, deep blue: a sapphire blue.
But something is not quite right here. In "I've Brought to Art," Cavafy portrays himself as his art's servant, literally carrying fragments of life to it and letting it put them together into a coherent whole. Yet "Art" is not an agent—it is Cavafy himself who uses art in order to give his hazy memories the definite shape of beauty. The poem seems to put life on one side and art on the other; but both the life and the art are Cavafy's own, and they are one with his poetry. The "fragments" of Leucius's epitaph do not exist outside "During the Month of Athyr": they are integral parts of Leucius's only epitaph—Cavafy's poem—and once there, they are not fragments at all. Raphael never composed his poem according to the advice he is offered in "For Ammonis": the advice constitutes the lines of the epitaph itself. The "faint memory" of "Distant" gradually takes the most definite shape—the shape of Beauty's Form—as we hear the speaker first say that he can hardly remember his lover's eyes, then make a tentative guess, go on to a definite statement, and, finally, give the most exact specification of their color, recalling it perfectly and bringing it directly into the present, no longer distant at all. However indefinite at first, the memory becomes almost physically palpable through the confidence with which the speaker finally describes the color of those long-lost eyes. Both its original faintness and its final clarity turn out to be parts, as well as effects, of the poetry. It is the poetry itself that creates and specifies what it pretends not to remember.
And so "I've Brought to Art" turns out to be in the end as ironic as "Distant." Half-seen things, hazy memories, lines, faces, desires, sensations—they do not exist independently of the art that orders them and makes them whole, through an activity that is itself as vague and shadowy as its materials. How exactly does art shape Beauty's Form? How does it complete life? Everything the poem describes is indefinite. But the activity it manifests, which places indistinct materials within the realm of art and art's independent force within Cavafy's control, is a precise assertion of his ability through his writing to bring into being things to which in his writing he can only merely allude. That is just what happens in "Their Beginning" (1915/1921): [End Page 17]
Their unlawful pleasure reachedits consummation. They rose from the mattress,and dress themselves in a hurry without speaking.they leave the house separately, stealthily; and as theywalk rather uneasily down the street it looks as ifthey feel that something about them betrayswhat kind of bed they lay on only a little while ago.
And yet, how the artist's life has been enriched.Tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or years later,the daring verses whose beginning was here will come to him.
Here we are promised a poem—"the daring verses"—that has not yet been written. And yet, where these verses had their beginning is also exactly where they meet their end: by the time we read the poet's self-confident prediction that they will come in the future, we have just finished reading them—these are themselves the promised daring verses.
Let me close with a poem that brings several of these poems together. Its title is "Painted" (1914/1915):
My work [ἐργασία] is a matter of concern to me; I am very fond of it.But composing has been slow today, it has discouraged me.The day has affected me. It's growingdarker all the time. Nothing but wind and rain.I'd much rather see than speak.So now, in this picture, I am lookingat a beautiful boy lying down beside a spring;he seems exhausted from running.What a beautiful child; what a divine noon hastaken hold of him and is about to put him to sleep.—I remain that way a long time, sitting and looking.And, in art again, I rest from its service.
It is difficult to know what to say about this little poem.15 There is, of course, its complex first line, which turns poetry more into an occupation (ἐργασία) than a calling and cannot be recited, at least in Greek, without the very fastidiousness it expresses. The picture of the beautiful boy connects this poem with others that touch on similar themes: visual works of art that feature figures like "a young Hermes," a "handsome youth, naked, erotic," Orophernis, and many others are common in Cavafy's work. The last verse confirms his aestheticism. The rest seems impossibly prosaic, even by Cavafy's standards: apart from the hackneyed personification of the "divine" noon, there are no figures of speech at all; the rhyme-scheme is so haphazard that it appears inept; the description [End Page 18] of the beautiful boy is intolerably vague. The writing is so cerebral that one can see why it seems—even to the poem's fictional speaker who produced it—less an object of passion and more a matter of almost detached concern: the ἐργασία that "concerns" (προσέχω) him and of which he is "fond" (ἀγαπῶ). Why, then, has "Painted" haunted and fascinated me for almost 50 years?
Because, it has gradually dawned on me, this poem cannot exist. Written in the first person and in the present tense, it is being narrated simultaneously with the events it describes. The discouraged poet tells us that he has stopped writing poetry and is looking instead at the picture of the beautiful boy—but he is also doing so at the very moment that he is writing this poem. The single "I" of the poem is both looking at the picture instead of writing and writing about looking at the picture instead of looking at it. That is impossible and haunting, ironic and fascinating.
I now think this poem, which comes into being by effacing itself, stands for Cavafy's poetry as a whole. While it insists on its status as poetry, it is bereft of the obvious trappings considered, especially when it was first composed, essential to poetry. But once we look around the corner and read for texture, not text, the poem's prosaic language proves not a shortcoming but a means to drive that point home. Only by being literal can "Painted" be a metaphor for Cavafy's art, whose power—like the poem he pretends not to be writing—remains with him even as he turns away from it. His art is so close to him that we cannot tell whether he thinks he is its master or its servant. The poem opens by putting him in charge of his art, «ἡ ἐργασία μου» (my work), but it closes with him in its «δούλεψη» (service, or servitude—the word is cognate with δουλειά the Greek for "work," which is in turn cognate with δουλεία, "slavery"), reversing their relationship. Read literally, the last verse says that Cavafy, tired by writing, like the unknown poet in Antioch, turns away from poetry and rests by looking at the picture, as if writing is a painful, disheartening task, and only seeing can satisfy his need. As a metaphor, though, "Painted" intimates that since everything—including the picture the poet is looking at—is part of this poem, which pretends not to exist, Cavafy has not abandoned his poetry even for a moment: it is poetry that continues to be his means of both expressing and satisfying desire. Once again, Cavafy unites technical mastery with passion and confesses that there is no rest from art's service for him, no part of his life that is not also a part of his art. To unite art and the rest of life in that way requires (and in Cavafy's poetry employs) immense power, even if it is not clear to whom that power belongs—to art itself or to its practitioner. How can we even begin to speak of master and servant here? "Painted" is a poem about a poem that is not merely unread, unfinished, or even unwritten, [End Page 19] but actually impossible. Cavafy's poetry is truly poiesis: creation. Perhaps he should have called it "Written." "Painted" is Cavafy's poetics.16
Alexander Nehamas is Carpenter Professor in the Humanities at Prince ton University. He is interested in ancient philosophy, philosophy of art, and Nietzsche. His most recent book is On Friendship (Basic Books, 2016).
This is a revised text of the Cavafy Chair Inaugural Lecture at the University of Michigan in 2002. I am grateful to Professor Vassilis Lambropoulos for his invitation and to David Halperin, Peter Mackridge, Paul Cartledge, and David Ricks, as well as audiences at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton Universities for their comments on earlier drafts. I also want to acknowledge a deep debt of gratitude to Diana Haas for her help with the issues discussed in note 10 below. Karen Emmerich and Artemis Leontis made valuable suggestions on the penultimate draft of this essay.
1. I include the date of composition and (when it is different) the date of publication of each poem. Unattributed translations are my own.
2. Callimachus was believed to reject long poetical works and was known for his sophisticated epigrams and hymns until 1910, when the first substantial excerpt of his long Aetia, which had been recently discovered, was published for the first time. (I am grateful to Lee Clayman for information about the history of the Aetia's manuscripts) His attitude was supposed to be expressed in his famous statement: «μέγα βιβλίον μέγα κακόν». In fact, I think, the statement, best translated as "big book, big trouble," concerns the difficult task of rerolling the papyrus of a long book after reading it—a delicate and time-consuming enterprise.
3. So, for example, Whigham 1975, 3–4: "Meleager has sometimes struck critics as too ingenious to be sincere... [but it] is as a love-poet... that he is supremely the best of the Greek epigrammatists. He employs the whole range of traditional erotic imagery and rings all the changes on it. He is the first poet to give Eros the role which has become so familiar to us in love-poetry."
4. "Cavafy" here and hereafter refers to the figure that emerges through his work and not to the poet's private views, which may or may not be consonant with what the poetry expresses. I have discussed the methodology involved in that approach to interpretation in Nehamas 1981; 1987; 1998, 241n62). For his views on technical virtuosity and the importance of passion, see "Craftsman of Wine Bowls," "Very Seldom," "When They Come Alive," and "That's the One" (as well as Cavafy's comment about the nameless poet he describes, below). For his suspiciousness of the contrast between Greece and Asia, see "Returning from Greece" and "In a Town of Osroini." Elena Ferrante, the author of The Neapolitan Quartet, makes the point succinctly: "The true reader, I think, searches not for the brittle face of the author in flesh and blood, who makes herself beautiful for the occasion, but the naked physiognomy that remains in every effective word" (Ferrante 2016, 180).
6. The reference is to two ways of understanding "barbarism"—"negative" and "affirmative"—one that "acknowledges the necessity of the old category of the barbarian for civilization's [End Page 20] self-definition," and one that "hints at the possibility of another 'kind of solution,' which would... involve... the 'barbarian' otherwise: as the foreign agent of radical change" (Boletsi 2014, 68).
7. Edessa, now Sanliurfa in Southeastern Turkey, close to the Syrian border, was the capital city of Osroene—at the very outskirts of the Hellenic world. By contrast, Antioch (modern Antakya, in Southwestern Turkey, even closer to the Syrian border) was the capital of ancient Syria, a major political, intellectual, and economic metropolis during both Hellenistic and Roman times.
8. Cavafy's poem was published in 1909; Borges's story appeared in 1939.
9. It is true that Cavafy's indirect reconstruction of the nameless poet's work is not directly parallel to Menard's direct rewriting of Don Quixote. But the net result is the same: a text that, although it is to all effects and purposes one, possesses two fundamentally different meanings, at least partly as a result of the different times at which its two versions were composed.
10. Diana Haas alerted me to this fact, provided me with appropriate documentation, and was kind enough to discuss the interpretative issue in detail with me.
Professor Haas herself is cautious regarding the significance of the number 83 (ογδόντα τρία) in verse 3. She points out that the number excludes Cavafy's prose and foreign-language poems, as well as his translations into Greek, but argues, correctly in my opinion, that the nameless poet appears to have written only original poems in Greek. Another issue concerns the exclusion of poems Cavafy had "destroyed" or rejected and of which only the titles remain: had Cavafy done so by 1898? Although we cannot be certain, we do know that in his text "Philosophical Scrutiny" (1903–1904)—though we have no evidence that he had done so earlier—he refers to such a practice of "following the lists and ticking each on the list as it is finished, or effacing it if vowed to destruction" (Cavafy 2003, 258). Still, in his discussion of poetics, "The Ships" (1895–1896), Cavafy writes that some poems (which in this allegorical text he refers to as "the merchandise" carried by various ships across the seas)—poems of "the least value"—must be discarded "in order to save the whole" (Cavafy 1995, 56).
Professor Haas suspects that the number 83 may have been chosen because of the need to rhyme verse 3 with verses 5, 6, and 8 (τρία, στιχοποιΐα, φρασεολογία, ἀθυμία; I use a slightly different rhyme in my translation of verse 3 in order to preserve Cavafy's scheme). That is certainly possible, although it is equally possible that it was the number itself that required the particular rhymes Cavafy chose to correspond to it—or, most plausibly, that number and rhyme-scheme were happily complementary. Still, in his comments to his brother John, who was translating an earlier version of the poem, Cavafy wrote that "'eighty-three' can become 93 or 73, or 103 or 96, or 70, or 108—however it suits you. But no less than 70, because that would be too few" (Cavafy 1991, 144–145). It is worth remarking that the first three numbers would preserve the rhyme-scheme, although the rest would not. Since Cavafy had his doubts about John's translating abilities (Savidis 1996, 125), it is quite possible that he was trying to make sure that John, who was not an outstanding translator, would not feel constrained by that particular number in his version. In fact, John's version refers to "one hundred poems"—for no reason that I can see, since in any case he does not preserve Cavafy's rhyme-scheme.
Despite these various qualifications, it seems to me undeniable that the choice of the number 83 cannot have been purely accidental or totally insignificant and that it should be considered in any effort to interpret the poem.
11. Athyr, Athor, or Hathor was a female Egyptian deity, sometimes thought to be a version of Aphrodite, goddess of love in Greek mythology.
12. "KZ" is how the Greeks represented the number 27. [End Page 21]
13. It is true that neither "Greco-Syrian Sorcerers" nor "During the Month of Athyr" concern poems (unless, as we cannot be certain, Leucius's epitaph was a poem to begin with). I discuss them here because they share a generic feature with the poems about poems I am focusing on: they describe what we might correctly call an absence—and in the process give that absence a concrete presence.
14. Dareios, the great Persian emperor, was defeated by the Athenians in the Battle of Marathon in 490 b.c. Mithridates, King of Pontus, was the most dangerous enemy of the Roman Empire until he was defeated by Pompey in 66 b.c. A detailed analysis of the poem can be found in Maronitis 1970.
16. The idea that "Painted" contains a microcosm of Cavafy's poetics is pursued in much greater detail in Kalligas 2004, written in response to Nehamas 2002. I agree with Kalligas on several issues, including his detailed analysis of the structure of the poem, the self-referential nature of Cavafy's writing, Cavafy's idealized identification with many of the equally idealized young men in his poetry, and his occasional wistful regret on account of no longer being one of, or with, them. Where Kalligas and I disagree is on the identification of the beautiful boy in "Painted." He believes that the boy is a version of Narcissus, a myth Kalligas examines (2004, 126–129) in relation to its transmission by Philostratus the Elder (Fairbanks 1931a) and Callistratus (Fairbanks 1931b). Now the most salient feature of Narcissus is that when he saw for the first time his reflection in a spring, he fell in love with it—that is, he fell in love with himself—and totally absorbed as he was in his image fell into the water and drowned. According to Philostratus's ekphrasis of a painting of Narcissus, "A youth just returned from the hunt stands over a pool, drawing from within himself a kind of yearning and falling in love with his own beauty" (Imagines [Εἰκόνες] 1). But Philostratus's youth is not at all asleep: on the contrary, he is «ὀρθόν ἀναπαύεται» (standing erect, is at rest)," which Kalligas considers an oxymoron; "he has his legs crossed and supports one hand on the spear which is planted on his left, while his right hand is pressed against his hip." Callistratus for his part writes: "There was a grove, and in it an exceedingly beautiful spring of very pure clear water, and by this stood a Narcissus made of marble" (Descriptions [Ἐκφράσεις] 5). There is no implication here that the statue is of Narcissus either lying down or asleep. Kalligas, referring to Ovid, Met. 3.504–505 (Tarrant 2004) and to the connection between Νάρκισσος and νάρκη (a numbness or torpor often connected with dying), claims that the sleep that is about to overtake the boy is "without doubt... no one but death" (Kalligas 2004, 128n23). Nonetheless, Cavafy's verses, "what a divine noon has / taken hold of him and is about to put him to sleep," do not seem to me to be at all alluding to such a dark future for the boy; they only augur a peaceful afternoon.