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CP. Cavafy: The Poet in the Reader Diskin Clay If Cavafy heard 125 voices within him telling him that he could write history, he must have heard them as he was reading history—the history he finally transformed into three cycles of poems he entitled "Ancient Days," "The Beginnings of Christianity," and "Byzantine Days." Cavafy was a demanding reader of history, as his reading notes to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire demonstrate .1 He approves, for example, of Gibbon's accuracy in recording the precise height of the column on which Simeon Stylites perched for some 30 years of a pious life.2 But Cavafy can censure Gibbon for his misconception of the Roman province of Achaea or for his failure to appreciate the principles of Byzantine prosody.3 And he disliked the conception of Hellenism that prompted Gibbon to allow Augustus to refer to Cleopatra as a "barbarian queen."4 And strikingly, Cavafy notes with apparent admiration Gibbon's description of Tacitus as a "philosophic historian."5 There are no poems more revealing of Cavafy as the poet of history than the poems he never finished. Five of these—all on Julian the Apostate—have been published by Renata Lavagnini (1981). None of these poems had reached its final form at the time of Cavafy 's death, but all give us a rare glimpse of Cavafy as a reader, an historian, and finally as a poet of history. These five poems and some 25 others belong to the Cavafy Archives and they are themselves archival . They are contained, in odd bits and pieces, in five folders. In them Cavafy deposited not only the successive drafts and corrections to the five poems on Julian, but excerpts and notes from the reading that went into them. In the case of his poem on St. Athanasios, we find a sheet with a passage excerpted from "Mrs. Butcher, The Story of the Church of Egypt: vol. I, pages 184, 185."6 There are also notes to the relevant passages from Migne's collection of the writings of the Greek fathers of the church and a comment by the poet on his projected St. Athanasios: "NOTES: In Migne 67 (Sozomen and Socrates ) and 82 (Theodoret) Butcher's version is not to be found. If it can't be discovered elsewhere, in some life of St. Athanasios, the 65 66 Diskin Clay poem won't stand." Cavafy never located Butcher's source and he finally abandoned his St. Athanasios. He had begun it in April 1920 and left it unfinished in November of 1929.7 This is the poet of Kaisarion (19W1918):8 In part to verify of the details of an age, in part to kill time, Last night I picked up and read through a collection of Ptolemaic inscriptions. . . . When I had managed to get straight the details of this age I would have put the book down, but a small and insignificant detail concerning King Kaisarion suddenly caught my eye. The phrase was the advice given to Octavian not to allow many Caesars—polykaisarie. It was a phrase so arresting that it allowed Cavafy the room to create Kaisarion in his own imagination, and to surround this imaginary vision of the young "King of Kings" with the Machiavellian advice that went back to Odysseus and Iliad II.9 One of the drafts of the stillborn poems on Julian (Julian's Escape , December 1913) contains still another phrase that caught Cavafy 's eye—Julian's dismissal of his early faith in the solemn and pompous "Let there be forgetfulness of that darkness." The actual phrase comes from Julian's pagan Hymn to King Helios10 and is directed at the emperor's early Christianity, which he would bury in darkness. The historian in Cavafy recognized that Julian had managed to forget something else about his early Christianity—the fact that he owed his life to the Christian priests who were responsible, in the words of Gregory of Nazianzos, for his "unbelievable and unexpected " escape from the massacre that followed the death of Constantine in 337.11 This is the comment of Cavafy, the poet in the reader of Julian and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3265
Print ISSN
0738-1727
Pages
pp. 65-83
Launched on MUSE
2010-06-24
Open Access
No
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