Constantine P. Cavafy, a most distinguished and highly regarded Greek poet today, was born in Alexandria in 1863 and died there some 70 years later. Faithful to the Pearl of the Mediterranean to his very last days and with only a few trips abroad in adult life he was brought up in a cosmopolitan milieu due to his parents background (Constantinople) and their business which took the family to England for some years in his youth. Back in Alexandria 1877 they had to leave again a few years later, now for Constantinople and due to political unrest whence the British government sent naval forces to Alexandria to protect their interests in Egypt.
A man of 19, Cavafy now took the opportunity to explore his roots as he socialized with his relatives in Constantinople and also experienced the wonders of the once Hellenic/Byzantine city. Cavafy stated later in his life that his youth was a very critical stage since his poetical themes emerged during those years. Cavafy sailed for Alexandria in 1885 and so lived there for the rest of his life initially earning his living as a journalist but later as a civil servant in the Ministry of Public Works – a position he held for some thirty years.
After Cavafy returned to Alexandria he began publishing articles in newspapers and soon also had his first poem printed in a periodical. A perfectionist though, Cavafy, all in all, published 154 poems. Poetry which where inspired by the Hellenic sphere and Cavafy’s own personal experiences and often had a historical setting. His poems have attracted many to make translations of his wonderful words and among early promoters of Cavafy’s artistry names as T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster may be mentioned.
George Economou, who has published two small books of translations from Cavafy, “I’ve Gazed So Much,” and “Half an Hour & Other Poems,” both with Stop Press of London, has just finished a book of translations of 163 poems by Cavafy entitled “Complete Plus: the Poetry of C. P. Cavafy in English”, forthcoming from Shearsman Books in January of 2013.
When I learned the disastrous news that Myres had died,
I went to his house, although I refrain
from entering Christian homes,
especially at times of mourning or holidays.
I stood in the hall. I didn’t want
to go inside any further, because I noticed
that the relatives of the deceased were looking at me
with obvious surprise and annoyance.
They had laid him out in a large room
of which I could see a small part from
the corner where I stood; all expensive carpets
and silver and gold vessels.
I stood in a corner of the hall and wept.
And thought about how our gatherings and excursions
won’t amount to much anymore without Myres
and thought about how I would no longer see him
at our lovely and shocking all-nighters
enjoying himself, laughing, and reciting verses
with his expert sense of Greek rhythm;
and thought about how I’d forever lost
his beauty, lost forever
the young man I’d adored to distraction.
Some old women near me were talking with lowered voices
about the last day of his life––
the name of Christ constantly on his lips,
holding a cross in his hands.––
Then four Christian priests entered
the room fervently saying
prayers and entreaties to Jesus,
or to Mary (I don’t know their religion well).
Of course, we knew Myres was Christian.
We knew from the very first hour when
he’d come into our crowd year before last.
He lived exactly as we did.
Of all of us the most profligate in pursuit of pleasures;
showering his money extravagantly on amusements.
Careless about other people’s opinions,
he threw himself readily into night-time street fights
when that gang of ours happened
to cross paths with a gang of rivals.
We never discussed his religion.
In fact, once we told him
we were taking him with us to the Serapeum.
But he seemed to be offended
by our little joke: I remember it now.
Ah, and now two other occasions come to mind.
When we made libations to Poseidon,
he pulled out of our circle, and looked the other way.
When one of us enthusiastically
said, May our company always come under
the favor and protection of the great,
the supremely beautiful Apollo––Myres whispered
(the others didn’t hear) “except for me.”
The priests were praying loudly
for the young man’s soul.––
I remarked with how much diligence
and with what intense care
for the formalities of their religion, they were preparing
everything for the Christian funeral.
And suddenly a peculiar sensation
overcame me. I had this hazy feeling
that Myres was deserting me;
I had a feeling that he, a Christian, was bonded
to his own people, and that I was becoming
a stranger, a total stranger; I even felt
a doubt overtaking me: possibly I’d been fooled
by my own passion, and had always been a stranger.––
I sped out of their hideous house,
quickly left before their Christianity
could tear away, could distort my memory of Myres.
Translation of Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem on this post: © George Economou
Published with the permission of George Economou