Before time could change them

For A. F.

C. P. Cavafy

They were greatly saddened at their parting.
They didn’t want it: it was the circumstances.
The need for a livelihood forced one of them
to flee far – New York or Canada.
Their love certainly wasn’t its former self.
The allure had gradually waned,
the allure had waned gravely.
But to be separated: they didn’t want it.
It was the circumstances. – Or maybe Fate
had appeared as an artist to separate them now
before their ardour froze, before Time could change them:
each for the other will be as if he’d remained always
the twenty-four year old, the beautiful lad.

[Published 1924]

Original Greek Poem

I went

C. P. Cavafy

I didn’t hold back. I let go and I went.
Into delights which were half real,
half moulded in the mind,
through the bright night I went.
And I drank strong wines, the way
the stars of pleasure drink.

[Written 1905; Published 1913]

Original Greek Poem

One night

C. P. Cavafy

The room was poor and miserable,
hidden above the crooked taverna.
The window had a view to the alley,
grimy and cramped. From below
drifted the sounds of some labourers
playing cards and carousing.

And there on the coarse and humble bed
I had love’s body, I had the intoxicating lips
voluptuous and rosy –
the rosy lips so potent, that even now
that I write, after so many years!,
in my empty home, I am drunk again.

[Published 1915]

Original Greek Poem

Understanding

C. P. Cavafy

My juvenile years, my libertine life –
now I see their sense so clearly.

How idle the regret, how futile…

But I didn’t see the sense in them then.

Through the dissolute life of my formative years
bled the instincts of my poetry,
the contours of my art were mapped out.

That’s why the regret would never stick,
and my resolutions to moderate, to change,
would last two weeks at most.

[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

Just occasionally

C. P. Cavafy

He is an old man. Worn out and hunched over,
crippled by the years, and by excess,
slowly shuffling, he crosses the alley.
And yet, as he enters his home to bury
his misery and decline, he contemplates
the stake he still has in youth.

Young men recite his verses now.
His visions pass before their lively eyes.
Their vigorous, wanton minds,
their graceful and taut bodies,
stir to his avowal of beauty.

[Written 1911; Published 1913]

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

Nero’s time

C. P. Cavafy

Nero was not upset when he heard
the report of the Delphic Oracle.
“Beware the age of seventy-three.”
He had time yet to enjoy himself.
He’s thirty years old. Ample
is the time the god grants him
to take care of the eventual dangers.

Presently he’ll return to Rome, a little tired,
but exquisitely so from this outing,
which was all days of indulgence –
at theatres, in gardens, the gym…
Achaean cities’ evenings…
Ah, but especially the delight of naked bodies.

That’s Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters his army and exercises it,
the old man of seventy-three.

[Written 1915; Published 1918]

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

Voices

C. P. Cavafy

Ideal and adored voices
of those who have died, or of those who are
as lost to us as the dead.

Sometimes they speak in our dreams.
Sometimes the mind hears them in its thought.

And with their sound return for a moment
sounds of our life’s first poetry –
like music, at night, distant, fading.

[Written 1903; Published 1904]

Original Greek Poem