Constantine P. Cavafy

We won't be deceived
by words such as Indispensable, Unique, and Great.
Someone else indispensable and unique and great
can always be found at a moment's notice.

Constantine P. Cavafy, also known as Konstantin or Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, or Kavaphes (Greek Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης) (29 April 186329 April 1933) was a Greek poet who is often ranked among most important literary figures of the 20th century.

QuotesEdit

You won't find a new country, won't find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
When setting out upon your way to Ithaca,
wish always that your course be long,
full of adventure, full of lore.
People of Kommagini, let the glory of Antiochos,
the noble king, be celebrated as it deserves.
He wasn’t completely wrong, poor old Gemistus
  • You won't find a new country, won't find another shore.
    This city will always pursue you.

    You'll walk the same streets, grow old
    in the same neighbourhoods, turn grey in these same houses.
    You'll always end up in this city. Don't hope for things elsewhere:
    there's no ship for you, there's no road.
    Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner,
    you've destroyed it everywhere in the world.
  • When setting out upon your way to Ithaca,
    wish always that your course be long,
    full of adventure, full of lore.
  • Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
    not only the beds you lay on,
    but also those desires glowing openly
    in eyes that looked at you,
    trembling for you in voices.
  • People of Kommagini, let the glory of Antiochos,
    the noble king, be celebrated as it deserves.

    He was a provident ruler of the country.
    He was just, wise, courageous.
    In addition he was that best of all things, Hellenic —
    mankind has no quality more precious:
    everything beyond that belongs to the gods.
  • I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
    with so many incidents, so many details.

    And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

  • The Spartans weren't to be led
    and ordered around
    like precious servants.
    Besides,
    they wouldn't have thought a pan-Hellenic expedition
    without a Spartan king in command
    was to be taken very seriously.
    Of course, then, "except the Lacedaimonians."

    That's certainly one point of view. Quite understandable.

  • The days of the future stand in front of us
    Like a line of candles all alight —
    Golden and warm and lively little candles.
    • "Candles" [Κεριά], as translated by Manolis, in Constantine P. Cavafy: Poems (2008) edited by George Amabile
  • I look before me at my lighted candles,
    I don’t want to turn around and see with horror
    How quickly the dark line is lengthening,
    How quickly the candles multiply that have been put out.
    • "Candles" [Κεριά], as translated by Manolis, in Constantine P. Cavafy: Poems (2008) edited by George Amabile
  • And from this marvellous pan-Hellenic expedition,
    triumphant, brilliant in every way,
    celebrated on all sides, glorified
    incomparable, we emerged:
    the great new Hellenic world.
    • In The Year 200 B. C. (1931)
  • He wasn’t completely wrong, poor old Gemistus
    (let Lord Andronicus and the patriarch suspect him if they like),
    in wanting us, telling us to become pagan once again.
  • Speak not of guilt, speak not of responsibility. When the Regiment of the Senses parades by, with music, and with banners; when the senses shiver and shudder, it is only a fool and and an irreverent person that will keep his distance, who will not embrace the good cause, marching towards the conquest of pleasures and passions.
    All of morality’s laws – poorly understood and applied – are nil and cannot stand even for a moment, when the Regiment of the Senses parades by, with music, and with banners.

Waiting for the Barbarians (1904)Edit

Full text onlineTranslation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (1992)
Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
  • What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

    The barbarians are due here today.

    • l. 1
  • Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
    wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
    Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
    rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
    Why are they carrying elegant canes
    beautifully worked in silver and gold?

    Because the barbarians are coming today
    and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

    • l. 16
  • Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
    (How serious people's faces have become.)
    Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
    everyone going home lost in thought?

    Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
    And some of our men who have just returned from the border say
    there are no barbarians any longer.

    Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
    Those people were a kind of solution.

    • l. 26

To Have Taken The Trouble (1930)Edit

Full text online
The almighty gods ought to have taken the trouble
to create a fourth, a decent man.
I would gladly have gone along with him.
  • I'm practically broke and homeless.
    This fatal city, Antioch,
    has devoured all my money:
    this fatal city with its extravagant life.
    • l. 1
  • Whatever job they give me,
    I'll try to be useful to the country. That's what I intend.
    But if they frustrate me with their manoeuvres —
    we know them, those smart operators: no need to say more here —
    if they frustrate me, it's not my fault.
    • l. 18
  • One of the three will want me anyway.
    And my conscience is quiet
    about my not caring which one I choose:
    the three of them are equally bad for Syria.

    But, a ruined man, it's not my fault.
    I'm only trying, poor devil, to make ends meet.
    The almighty gods ought to have taken the trouble
    to create a fourth, a decent man.
    I would gladly have gone along with him.

    • l. 28

Collected Poems (1992)Edit

As translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; edited by George Savidis, published online at The Official Website of the Cavafy Archive
The holy Cross goes forward; it brings joy and consolation
to every quarter where Christians live
The empire is delivered at last.
The vile, the appalling Julian
reigns no longer.
He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
So brief an interval, so very brief.
Don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive — don’t mourn them uselessly.
Bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.
When they saw Patroklos dead
— so brave and strong, so young —
the horses of Achilles began to weep...
His friends weren’t Christians; that much was certain.
That we’ve broken their statues,
that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.
  • The frivolous can call me frivolous.
    I’ve always been most punctilious about
    important things.
    And I insist
    that no one knows better than I do
    the Holy Fathers, or the Scriptures, or the Canons of the Councils.
  • The holy Cross goes forward; it brings joy and consolation
    to every quarter where Christians live;
    and these God-fearing people, elated,
    stand in their doorways and greet it reverently,
    the strength, the salvation of the universe, the Cross.
  • The empire is delivered at last.
    The vile, the appalling Julian
    reigns no longer.
    • A Great Procession of Priests and Laymen
  • He knows he’s aged a lot: he sees it, feels it.
    Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
    So brief an interval, so very brief.

    And he thinks of Prudence, how it fooled him,
    how he always believed — what madness —
    that cheat who said: “Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.”

  • He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
    he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
    now mocks his senseless caution.
    • An Old Man
  • And if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
    at least try as much as you can
    not to degrade it
    by too much contact with the world,
    by too much activity and talk.
  • The love they felt wasn’t, of course, what it once had been;
    the attraction between them had gradually diminished,
    the attraction had diminished a great deal.
    But to be separated, that wasn’t what they themselves wanted.
  • Of what’s to come the wise perceive
    things about to happen.

    Sometimes during moments of intense study
    their hearing’s troubled: the hidden sound
    of things approaching reaches them,
    and they listen reverently, while in the street outside
    the people hear nothing whatsoever.

  • Don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
    work gone wrong, your plans
    all proving deceptive — don’t mourn them uselessly.

    As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
    say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
    Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
    it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
    don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
    • The God Abandons Antony (1911)
    • Variant translations:
    • Like one who’s long prepared, like someone brave,
      as befits a man who’s been blessed with a city like this,
      go without faltering toward the window

      and listen with deep emotion, but not
      with the entreaties and the whining of a coward,
      to the sounds — a final entertainment —
      to the exquisite instruments of that initiate crew,
      and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are losing.
    • Don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
      work gone wrong, your plans
      all proving deceptive — don't mourn them uselessly:
      as one long prepared, and full of courage,
      say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
  • Immoral to a degree — and probably more than a degree —
    they certainly were. But they had the satisfaction that their life
    was the notorious life of Antioch,
    delectably sensual, in absolute good taste.

    To give up all this, indeed, for what?

    His hot air about the false gods,
    his boring self-advertisement,
    his childish fear of the theatre,
    his graceless prudery, his ridiculous beard.

  • Things impolitic and dangerous:
    praise for Greek ideals,
    supernatural magic, visits to pagan temples.

    Enthusiasm for the ancient gods
  • The matter, says Mardonios, has gone too far,
    the talk it has aroused must be stopped at all cost. —
    So Julian goes to the church at Nicomedia,
    a lector again, and there
    with deep reverence he reads out loud
    passages from the Holy Scriptures,
    and everyone marvels at his Christian piety.
  • His friends weren’t Christians; that much was certain.
    But even so they couldn’t play
    as he could (brought up a Christian)
    with a new religious system,
    ludicrous in both theory and application.
    They were, after all, Greeks. Nothing in excess, Augustus.
He who hopes to grow in spirit
will have to transcend obedience and respect.
He'll hold to some laws
but he'll mostly violate
both law and custom, and go beyond
the established, inadequate norm.
  • That we’ve broken their statues,
    that we’ve driven them out of their temples,
    doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.

    O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,
    their souls still keep your memory.
    • Ionic
    • Variant translation: Because we have broken up their images,
      because we have expelled them from their fanes,
      in no wise are they dead for that — the gods.

      Land of Ionia, it is you they love
      still — you whose memories still delight their souls.
  • He who hopes to grow in spirit
    will have to transcend obedience and respect.
    He'll hold to some laws
    but he'll mostly violate
    both law and custom, and go beyond
    the established, inadequate norm.

    Sensual pleasures will have much to teach him.
    He won't be afraid of the destructive act:
    half the house will have to come down.
    This way he'll grow virtuously into wisdom.
  • Roses by the head, jasmine at the feet —
    so appear the longings that have passed
    without being satisfied, not one of them granted
    a night of sensual pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.
Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard
the utterance of the Delphic Oracle:
“Beware the age of seventy-three.”
And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army —
Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.
  • A month passes by and brings another month.
    Easy to guess what lies ahead:
    all of yesterday’s boredom.
    And tomorrow ends up no longer like tomorrow.
  • Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard
    the utterance of the Delphic Oracle:
    “Beware the age of seventy-three.”
    Plenty of time to enjoy himself still.
    He’s thirty. The deadline
    the god has given him is quite enough
    to cope with future dangers.
  • And in Spain Galba
    secretly musters and drills his army —
    Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.
    • Nero’s Deadline
  • The people going by would gaze at him,
    and one would ask the other if he knew him,
    if he was a Greek from Syria, or a stranger.
    But some who looked more carefully
    would understand and step aside
    ;
    and as he disappeared under the arcades,
    among the shadows and the evening lights,
    going toward the quarter that lives
    only at night, with orgies and debauchery,
    with every kind of intoxication and desire,
    they would wonder which of Them it could be,
    and for what suspicious pleasure
    he had come down into the streets of Selefkia
    from the August Celestial Mansions.
To have come this far is no small achievement:
what you have done is a glorious thing.
  • Just to be on the first step
    should make you happy and proud.
    To have come this far is no small achievement:
    what you have done is a glorious thing.

    Even this first step
    is a long way above the ordinary world.
    To stand on this step
    you must be in your own right
    a member of the city of ideas.
    And it is a hard, unusual thing
    to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
    Its councils are full of Legislators
    no charlatan can fool.
If you are one of the truly elect,
be careful how you attain your eminence.
  • Guard, O my soul, against pomp and glory.
    And if you cannot curb your ambitions,
    at least pursue them hesitantly, cautiously.
    And the higher you go,
    the more searching and careful you need to be.
Honor to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
  • If you are one of the truly elect,
    be careful how you attain your eminence.
  • Honor to those who in the life they lead
    define and guard a Thermopylae.

    Never betraying what is right,
    consistent and just in all they do
    but showing pity also, and compassion;
    generous when they are rich, and when they are poor,
    still generous in small ways,
    still helping as much as they can;
    always speaking the truth,
    yet without hating those who lie.
One candle is enough.
  • One candle is enough. Its gentle light
    will be more suitable, will be more gracious
    when the Shades arrive, the Shades of Love.
Later, in a more perfect society,
someone else made just like me
is certain to appear and act freely.
  • It will be a great relief when a window opens.
    But the windows are not there to be found —
    or at least I cannot find them. And perhaps
    it is better that I don’t find them.
    Perhaps the light will prove another tyranny.
    Who knows what new things it will expose?
  • Try to keep them, poet,
    those erotic visions of yours,
    however few of them there are that can be stilled.
    Put them, half-hidden, in your lines.
The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
appeared before you.
And if they left, don’t think for a minute
that they were frightened by a gesture.
  • From all I did and all I said
    let no one try to find out who I was.
  • From my most unnoticed actions,
    my most veiled writing —
    from these alone will I be understood.
    • Hidden Things
  • Κατόπι — στὴν τελειοτέρα κοινωνία —
    κανένας ἄλλος καμωμένος σὰν ἐμένα
    βέβαια θὰ φανεῖ κ’ ἐλεύθερα θὰ κάμει.
    • Later, in a more perfect society,
      someone else made just like me
      is certain to appear and act freely.
    • Hidden Things
  • The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
    appeared before you.

    And if they left, don’t think for a minute
    that they were frightened by a gesture.
  • He was a quiet, gentle man,
    a man who loved peace
    (his country had suffered much
    from the wars of his predecessor),
    he behaved graciously toward everyone,
    humble and great alike.
    Never high-handed, he always sought advice
    in the kingdom’s affairs
    from serious, experienced people.

    Just why his nephew killed him
    was never precisely explained.

On hearing about powerful love, respond, be moved
like an aesthete.
  • On hearing about powerful love, respond, be moved
    like an aesthete.
    Only, fortunate as you’ve been,
    remember how much your imagination created for you.
  • How much we’ll tell down there, how much,
    and how very different we’ll appear.
    What we protect here like sleepless guards,
    wounds and secrets locked inside us,
    protect with such great anxiety day after day,
    we’ll disclose freely and clearly down there.
He felt he was alive once more,
Freed from the oppressive bonds
Of familiar, domestic things.
  • As the shores of Ithaca gradually
    Faded away behind him
    And he sailed swiftly westward
    Toward Iberia and the Pillars of Hercules,
    Far from every Achaean sea,
    He felt he was alive once more,
    Freed from the oppressive bonds
    Of familiar, domestic things.
    And his adventurous heart rejoiced
    Coldly, devoid of love.

When the Watchman Saw the Light (1900)Edit

Full text online, with link to Greek original
Now the longed-for signal has appeared. Yet when happiness comes
it brings less joy than one expected.
Let's hope all goes well.
But Argos can do without the house of Atreus.
Ancient houses are not eternal.
  • Now the longed-for signal has appeared. Yet when happiness comes
    it brings less joy than one expected.

    But at least we've gained this much: we've rid ourselves
    of hope and expectation.
  • So let's not exaggerate.
    The light is good; and those coming are good,
    their words and actions also good.
    And let's hope all goes well.

    But Argos can do without the house of Atreus.
    Ancient houses are not eternal.
  • Of course many people will have much to say.
    We should listen. But we won't be deceived
    by words such as Indispensable, Unique, and Great.

    Someone else indispensable and unique and great
    can always be found at a moment's notice.

Poems by C. P. Cavafy (2003)Edit

As translated by John Cavafy
They always come, the gods.
  • We for the best will strive. And always more
    defective, more perplexing than before,
    shall all things fare; until, as in a mist,
    we stray bewildered. Then we shall desist.
    For in that helpless hour the gods attend.
    They always come, the gods. They will descend
    from their machines, and straightway liberate
    some and as suddenly exterminate
    others; and having reformed us, they will go. —
    And afterward, one will act so; and so
    another; and in time the rest will do
    as they needs must. And we shall start anew.

Quotes about CavafyEdit

Arranged alphabetically by author
Cavafy is intrigued by the comic possibilities created by the indirect relation of poets to the world. ~ W. H. Auden
Whether Cavafy is describing an ancient political intrigue or an erotic encounter that occurred last week, his topic is the passage of time. ~ James Longenbach
  • Cavafy has three principal concerns: love, art, and politics in the original Greek sense. ... As a witness, Cavafy is exceptionally honest. He neither bowdlerizes nor glamorizes nor giggles. The erotic world he depicts is one of casual pickups and short-lived affairs. Love, there, is rarely more than physical passion, and when tenderer emotions exist, they are almost always one-sided. At the same time, he refuses to pretend that his memories of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.
    • W. H. Auden, "C. P. Cavafy," from Forewords and Afterwords (1973)
  • Cavafy's attitude toward the poetic vocation is an aristocratic one. His poets do not think of themselves as persons of great public importance and entitled to universal homage, but, rather, as citizens of a small republic in which one is judged by one's peers and the standard of judgment is strict.
    • W. H. Auden, "C. P. Cavafy," from Forewords and Afterwords (1973)
  • Cavafy is intrigued by the comic possibilities created by the indirect relation of poets to the world. While the man of action requires the presence of others here and now, for without the public he cannot act, the poet fabricates his poem in solitude.
    • W. H. Auden, "C. P. Cavafy," from Forewords and Afterwords (1973)
  • In his poems about the relations between Christians and Pagans in the age of Constantine, Cavafy takes no sides. Roman Paganism was worldly in the sense that the aim of its ritual practices was to secure prosperity and peace for the state and its citizens. ... after Constantine, it was the Christian who had a better chance than the Pagan of getting on in the world, and the Pagan, even if not persecuted, who became the object of social ridicule.
    • W. H. Auden, "C. P. Cavafy," from Forewords and Afterwords (1973)
  • From his biographers we know how cautious and reserved Cavafy was, how reluctant to talk about himself. Although he frequented cafes and saw many people, his loneliness remained unalleviated. This poem is a rather unusual confession for the poet, especially since it comes so early in his life: Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner, you've destroyed it everywhere in the world. The "City" is a summing up of the poet's life, starting with the desire for escape, for a journey, the last hope for a new beginning and ending with the realization that the journey is impossible because once a life has been ruined in one city it will be the same in any other. What separates him from society will not change from city to city.
    • Carmen Capri-Karka (K. Kaprē-Karka), in Love and the Symbolic Journey in the Poetry of Cavafy, Eliot, and Seferis (1982), p. 37
  • He has the strength (and of course the limitations) of the recluse, who, though not afraid of the world, always stands at a slight angle to it.
    • E. M. Forster, "The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy," from Pharos and Pharillon (1923)
  • He wrote consistently but almost never published through traditional means. There is nothing more detrimental to art, he maintained, than succumbing to “how the public thinks and what it likes and what it will buy.” ... Whether Cavafy is describing an ancient political intrigue or an erotic encounter that occurred last week, his topic is the passage of time. ... Earlier translators have, to varying degrees, rightly emphasized the prosaic flatness of Cavafy’s language; the flatness is crucial to the emotional power of the poems, since it prevents their irony from seeming caustic, their longing from seeming nostalgic.
  • He was a man who starts at a certain age with all signs showing that he's unable to produce anything of importance. And then, by refusing and refusing things which are offered him, in the end he finds, he sees, as they say; he becomes certain that he's found his own expression. It's a splendid example of a man who, through his refusals, finds his way.

External linksEdit

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Last modified on 12 April 2014, at 09:29