“Cavafy’s is a poetic style so understated, so minimal, so extravagantly self-effacing as to seem to shout out. Boegehold has spent a lifetime living among the Greeks and is uncommonly good at finding a wealth of monosyllables and their most effective sequence to produce the striking effect of Cavafy’s demand to be let along while saying it all.”
—Charles R. Beye (Professor Emeritus of Classics, CUNY)
“Boegehold catches that atmosphere and tone unique to Cavafy, an odd blend of world-weariness, irony, propriety, passion, and nostalgia found in no other poet, and does so in a minimalist translation, bare-boned like its original, that never wastes a single word. His introduction is perfect for anyone who comes to Cavafy for the first time.
—Dr. Peter Green, FRSL (Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics, University of Texas at Austin)
Constantine Cavafy was the most improbable [and] remains among the greatest, of modern Greek poets. “He wore a straw hat and stood at an angle to the universe,” said E.M. Forster. Deceptively simple and with hardly a metaphor in sight, Cavafy’s poetry nevertheless presents an enormous challenge to any modern translator (and since his international discovery in the mid-twentieth century there have been plenty of them). Alan Boegehold has several rare advantages for the task. He is a fine classicist, to whom Cavafy’s forays into the Hellenistic and Byzantine past present no problems. His familiarity with the Greek language, both ancient and modern, makes him sensitive to subtle nuances that many would miss (no accident that he’s an expert on Greek gestures).
About the Translator
Alan Lindley Boegehold took his A.B. in Latin at the University of Michigan in 1950 and his Ph.D. in Classical Philology at Harvard University in 1958. He taught Latin and Greek mostly at Brown University (1960-2001) but he began at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, and taught from time to time as visitor at Harvard, Yale, University of California at Berkeley, Amherst College, and Florida State University . In exploring the world of Classical antiquity he has tried to use language, literature, philosophy, the structures of justice, and all material culture as ways to understanding. His most recent books are When a Gesture Was Expected (Princeton University Press, 1999), The Lawcourts at Athens, vol. 28 of the Athenian Agora series (American School of Classical Studies, Princeton, 1995), and In Simple Clothes: Eleven Poems by Constantine Cavafy (Occasional Works, Woodside, CA, 1992).
Boegehold came to an appreciation of modern Greek literature by way of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, a graduate research institute affiliated with over 150 leading American colleges and universities, where he has been a professor in residence and chairman of the Managing Committee.
Introduction: Cavafy’s Values
An Old Man
The First Step
Old Men’s Souls
Che Fece . . . il Gran Rifiuto
Waiting for the Barbarians
The Ides of March
Sculptor of Tyana
The God Leaves Anthony
The Glory of the Ptolemies
To the Extent that You Can
The Tomb of the Grammarian Lysias
But Wise Men, Approaching Events
At the Café Door
The Battle of Magnesia
The Seleucid’s Displeasure
When They Stir
On the Street
Before the Statue of Endymion.
In Osroene’s City
For Ammones Who Died, Age 29, in 610
A God of Theirs
In the Month of Athyr
I’ve Looked So Hard
Days of 1903
The Tobacconist’s Window
Ambassadors from Alexandria
Aimilianos Monai, Alexandrian, 628–655 A.D.
From Nine O’Clock
By the House
Of the Jews
If He Did Die
Young Men of Sidon, 400 A.D.
So They Come
Byzantine Official in Exile, Poetaster
The Benevolence of Alexander Vala
Melancholy of Jason Kleander, Poet in Commagene, 595 A.D.
I Brought to Art
From the School of the Famous Philosopher
Who Fought for the Achaean League
To Antiochos Epiphanes
In an Old Book
Julian Observing Too Little Esteem
Epitaph of Antiochos, King of Commagene
Theater of Sidon (400 A.D.)
Julian in Nikomedia
Before Time Changes Them
He Came to Read
31 B.C. in Alexandria
John Kantakouzinos Prevails
Temethos, Antiochene, 400 A.D.
Of Colored Glass
The Twenty-fifth Year of his Life
On the Italian Shore
In a Boring Little Town
Apollonius Tyaneus in Rhodes
In a Town of Asia Minor
Priest at the Serapeion
In the Taverns
A Great Train of Priests and Laity
Sophist out of Syria
Julian and the Men of Antioch
Days of 1896
Two Young Men, 23 to 24 Years Old
Greek from Old
Days of 1901
You Do Not Comprehend
A Young Man, for His Art—24 Years Old
Picture of a 23 Year Old Young Man Done by a Friend of the Same Age, Amateur
In a Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C.
A Duke from Western Libya
Kimon, Son of Learchos, 22 Years Old, Student of Greek Literature (in Kyrene)
On the Way to Sinope
Days of 1909, ’10, and ’11
Myres: Alexandria. 340 A.D.
Alexander Jannaeus and Alexandra
Pretty Flowers and White, How Very Right They Were
Come O King of the Lacedaemonians
In the Same Place
He Asked About the Quality
They Should Have Concerned Themselves
By Prescriptions of Greco-Syrian Magicians of Old
Days of 1908
In the Suburbs of Antioch
At the Theater
The Bandaged Shoulder
Bank of the Future
The Death of the Emperor Tacitus
People of Poseidonia
Return from Greece
The Saving of Julian (unfinished)
“The Rest I Shall Tell Them Below in the House of Hades”
From the Introduction: Cavafy’s Values
The Greek poet Constantine Photiades Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863 and died there in 1933. His poems, those that he circulated in his lifetime and those that he did not, have become more and more widely read and influential since his death, thanks to the subsequent publication in book form, first of 154 poems that he had acknowledged and approved, and after that a number of others, some finished, some renounced, and some unfinished. New translations from Greek into English, French, German, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Russian, and other languages continue to appear.
The details of his life, work, and publication practices are available in an increasing number of studies. A good place to start is the online catalogue, called “Ambrosia,” of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and the British School at Athens, where close to 200 entries are listed under the poet’s name. The purpose of the present essay is to introduce Cavafy’s work into a series of books that in varying ways touch on values.
My own approach to the poet here is personal and without pretensions to an overview of what has been thought, written and said about him over the past hundred years and more. The opinions I record in the following pages are those of an appreciative reader and translator. They concern principally Cavafy’s sense of the worth of various things, as expressed in his poems.
Throughout the poems there is a keen appreciation of loss, both recent and in the distant past. A recent loss, often enough a lover, when irrecoverable, when repossessed only by memory, becomes, once it is a poem, possibly more valuable than the object of loss ever could be. Losses suffered by figures from antiquity are evaluated paradoxically and in the end recognizably on a scale consonant with the poet’s judgement of the object’s true worth.
Without regard, compasssion or shame,
they built around me great high walls.
And I sit here now and despair.
No other thought: my fate eats me.
Because I had so many things to do outside.
Alas, when they were building the walls
how could I not pay attention?
But I never heard noise from the builders, not a sound.
Without my notice they closed me in from the world outside.
The days of the future stand in front of us
Like a row of lighted candles.
Golden, warm, lively little candles.
Days past stay behind
A mournful line of extinguished candles.
The nearest ones still smoke,
Cold candles, melted, and lumpy.
I do not want to look at them. Their shape hurts me,
And it hurts me to remember their first light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.
I do not want to turn around, to look and shiver,
How quickly the dark line grows longer,
How quickly the dead candles multiply.
One monotonous day another
monotonous day impermutable follows.
The same things will happen, will happen again.
Identical moments both find us and leave us.
A month passes and brings another month.
What is coming is easy for one to envision.
It is yesterday’s business, those boring things.
A tomorrow turns out to be not tomorrow.