Cavafy in English accents


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.

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