I believe the persistent call for translations of Cavafy is a clear indication of the power of his poetry. Part of the present attraction to his work is also certainly due to the important changes taking place in our society, changes that the poet seemed to hope for in the closing lines of his poem “Hidden Things.” Cavafy’s hopes for a world without intolerance adds yet another dimension to the profound humanity that pervades his poetry. I’m interested in conveying the full reach and diversity of Cavafy’s humanity, sensibility, his intellect, and, I would add here, his unique historian’s perspective—a vision that so often and notably deals specifically with the dificulties that the artist experiences with the problem of the effects of time upon the poet’s ability to memorialize in his work a person or experience, invariably recalled for their erotic significance, which he so deeply treasures.
Nowhere is Cavafy’s sense of time’s passing more apparent than in the numerous poems that show how carefully he read and subtly alluded to the amatory poets of ancient Greece, primarily those of the renowned Greek—also known as the Palatine—Anthology. To begin with, the compass of Cavafy’s references to sexual attractions and actions matches that of the Greek Anthology, from lovers’ rivalries and disagreements to the recognition of time’s destructive effect upon a beloved’s or love object’s beauty, a theme appropriated and stood on its head by Cavafy’s counteracting exertions to preserve that beauty through memory and art. Between these come numerous poems that, it is important to stress, reflect not imitations but intimations of their parallels in the epigrams of the poets collected in the Greek Anthology and elsewhere: a passionate love that turns cool, love celebrated for its uncompromising commitment or expertise and the power of Eros, frustrated and unfulfilled love, love as fantasy and in dreams, the eroticism of the gods, and failed renunciations of love.
The poem “Gray” offers an important adversative illustration of Cavafy’s response to his reading of the anthology poets. The resonance attunes us first to the principal image of an aging beloved’s face, only the face in the sources is an unsightly, wrinkled one, usually described with cruel glee in revenge for the former beauty’s haughty refusal to reciprocate the would-be lover’s affection. These [End Page 297] pungent lines by Archilochos, written during the middle of the seventh century B. C., “Gone’s the bloom from your soft skin, your furrow’s / withered too, the… of foul old age is taking its toll,/] and the sweet loveliness has bolted from your longed for face,” may well have set a model for later poets to follow, though some epigrams on this theme are tempered with ironic humor. But for Cavafy the image of the beloved and his once beautiful—doomed to be “broken down”—face has become instead an object to be preserved against time by memory.
In translating I aim first and foremost to write a poem in English that partakes, as much as it is within my power to achieve, of the salient qualities of the original. This is and always has been my guiding principle, no matter the language from which I am translating. I do not follow any particular theory of translation though I have read my share of Benjamin, Venuti, and others. I have always chosen as my motto the statement by the late Paul Blackburn that “much depends on the translator,” in both of its senses. Since I am a poet practitioner of the art, I strive to write as good a poem in the American English of my time, as did—in the case of the language of his own time—Cavafy. I want to give readers not only Cavafy’s intellect and sensibility but also something of his poetry’s art, as defined by Paul Valéry, “constraining language to interest the ear directly.” [End Page 298]
The sea took a sailor down to her depths.—His mother, unaware, goes and lights
a tall candle...