Days of 1908

C. P. Cavafy

That year he found himself out of work
and so lived off card games,
backgammon and small loans.

A position, three pounds a month, at a small
stationers had been offered him.
But he turned it down without any hesitation.
It wouldn’t do. That wasn’t a wage for him,
a young man, fairly educated, and twenty-five years old.

He would win or lose two or three shillings a day.
The best the lad could manage out of card games and backgammon,
at the coffee shops of his class, the common ones,
try as he might to play smart, as much as he picked marks.
The loans, those were worse.
Rarely a crown, normally a half,
sometimes he settled for a shilling.

For a week or so, sometimes longer,
to recover from the frightful late nights
he cooled off at the baths, with a morning swim.

His clothes were a terrible mess.
He always put on the same suit,
a much faded suit of cinnamon.

O summer days of 1908,
from your sight, beautifully,
the cinnamon suit was barred.

Your sight preserved him
as he was when he took them off, when he tore them from him,
the unworthy clothes, and the mended underwear.
And he stood stark naked; perfectly handsome, a wonder.
His hair was uncombed and ruffled;
his limbs a little tanned
from morning undresses at the baths and on the beach.

[Published 1932]

Original Greek Poem

Che fece… il gran rifiuto

C. P. Cavafy

To some people comes a day
that they must say the big Yes or the big No.
It is clear at once who has it ready in him,
the Yes, and saying it on he goes

with honour and assurance.
He who refuses has no regret. If he were asked again,
No he would say once more. But that no –
the right one – his whole life cripples him.

[Written 1899; Published 1901]

Original Greek Poem

Their start

C. P. Cavafy

Their lawless pleasure discharged,
they rose from the mattress
and dress hurriedly in silence.
They come out separately, stealthily from the house; and as
they walk somewhat uneasily on the street, it’s like
they suspect that something on them betrays
what sort of bed they had just lain on.

But what a win for the life of the artist.
Tomorrow, the day after, or in the years to come, will be written
the powerful verses that had their start here.

[Written 1915; Published 1921]

Original Greek Poem

Anna Dalassene

C. P. Cavafy

In the chrysobull which Alexios Komnenos put out
to honour his mother expressly,
the highly intelligent Lady Anna Dalassene –
who was remarkable in her works, in her manners –
there are various tributes.
Here let us poach from them
one phrase, beautiful and kind:
‘Those cold words, “mine” and “thine”, were never spoken.’

[Published 1927]

Original Greek Poem


C. P. Cavafy

One monotonous day follows another,
monotonous and indistinguishable. The same things
will happen, they’ll happen again –
the same moments come and go.

A month passes and brings another.
We can easily predict what comes next:
more of yesterday’s tedium.
And, eventually, tomorrow feels like tomorrow no more.

[Written 1898; Published 1908]

Original Greek Poem

Come back

C. P. Cavafy

Come back often and seize me
lovely sensation, come back and seize me –
when memory of the body wakens
and old desire again swirls in the blood;
When lips and skin remember,
and hands feel like they touch again.

Come back often and seize me in the night,
when lips and skin remember…

[Published 1912]

Original Greek Poem

He came to read –

C. P. Cavafy

He came to read. Two or three books
lie open: historians and poets.
But he read for just ten minutes and
gave up. He drowses on the couch.
He is utterly devoted to books –
but he is twenty-three years old, and he’s very handsome.
And this afternoon love spread
through his perfect flesh, his lips.
Through his flesh, so full of beauty,
spread the erotic glow,
spared any silly shame for the pleasure’s form.

[Published 1924]

Original Greek Poem

He asked about the quality –

C. P. Cavafy

He left the office where he’d been hired
in a minor and ill-paid position
(about eight pounds a month, with benefits)
once the arid work had finished,
having spent the whole afternoon hunched over.
He left at seven, and walked slowly,
and loitered in the road. Beautiful
and interesting: that’s how he came off,
now at the full measure of his sensual craft.
The past month he had turned twenty-nine.

He loitered in the road, and in the poor
side-streets that led to his home.

Passing in front of a small shop
that sold cheap and tacky articles to labourers,
he saw a face therein, he saw a figure
which goaded him to enter and feign interest
in viewing coloured handkerchiefs.

He asked about the quality of the handkerchiefs
and how much they cost in a voice drowning
and almost suffocated by desire.
And similarly came the replies:
distracted, in a faltering voice,
with tacit acquiescence.

All this time they were talking about a purchase – but
their only purpose: that their hands might brush
above the handkerchiefs; that their faces, their lips,
might draw near as if by chance –
a fleeting touch of limb on limb.

Quickly and quietly, to avoid the attention
of the shop owner who was sitting at the back.

[Published 1930]

Original Greek Poem

Envoys from Alexandria

C. P. Cavafy

At Delphi they hadn’t seen for centuries such fine gifts
as these sent by the two brothers,
the rival Ptolemaic kings. Having received them
however, the priests worried about the oracle. They’ll need
all their experience to decide how to compose it judiciously,
which of the two – of two men such as these – to disappoint.
And they confer at night in secret
and they discuss the family affairs of the Lagids.

But see the envoys are back. They are bidding farewell.
Returning to Alexandria, they say. And they don’t seek
an oracle at all. And the priests hear this with joy
(naturally: they keep the brilliant gifts),
But they are also entirely uncomprehending,
not knowing what this sudden indifference intends.
As they are unaware that yesterday the envoys received grave news.
At Rome the oracle was given; the partition happened there.

[Written 1915; Published 1918]

Original Greek Poem

Of the Jews (50 A.D.)

C. P. Cavafy

Painter and poet, runner and discus-thrower,
beautiful like Endymion: Ianthis, son of Antony.
From a family close to the Synagogue.

‘My most honourable days are those
when I let go of the search for beauty,
when I absent myself from the fine and severe hellenism,
with its sovereign devotion
to perfectly made and sublunary white limbs.
And I become what I would like
always to remain: of the Jews, the holy Jews, a son.’

Rather ardent, his proclamation. ‘Always
to remain of the Jews, the holy Jews – ’

But he didn’t remain one at all.
Hedonism and the Art of Alexandria
kept him as their faithful child.

[Written 1912; Published 1919]

Original Greek Poem