Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly


Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly


Article excerpt

Poetry as we know it today--that is, its main genres of short lyric, elegy, pastoral, narrative, or didactic poem--was born around the third century B.C. in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. So was, some 2,000 years later, one of the greatest poets of our century, Constantinos Phanariotis Cavafis, or C.P. Cavafy, as his name is rendered in English.

Some 2,000 years ago Alexandria--founded by Alexander the Great, conqueror of all that became known as the Hellenistic world--was that world's pre-eminent city. Apart from being the seat of power of the ruling Ptolemies, it was the locus of the spiritual, cultural, and scientific life of the entire Hellenistic world, stretching from Egypt to India and from the third century B.C. to the third century A.D. What held together a world so large for so long was not troops but Magna Lingua Grecae--the great Greek language. Strictly speaking, the Hellenistic empire was a cultural rather than a political reality.

Compared to the epic and drama of the so-called archaic and classical periods of Greek history, the literature of the Hellenistic period dealt in relatively small forms. However, as is the case with every evolution, the smallness was the smallness of compression and condensation. The net result of such a process is an extraordinary intensity and durability.

Something similar, although in a far more diverse manner, occurred in the spiritual make-up of the Hellenistic world, as its polytheist metaphysics was pared down to philosophy. Always a marketplace of ideas, Alexandria by the first century B.C. was a virtual county fair of creeds, cults, doctrines, and faiths. Translated into social terms, polytheism meant tolerance.

That could not last. Politically, the curtain fell upon Alexandria when the Hellenistic empires were supplanted by the Romans. Spiritually and culturally, the end came when Rome herself went monotheistic, i.e. Christian. Alexandria died and lay buried. Until 1864, that is, when the wife of a well-to-do merchant in that city gave birth to her ninth child. He was christened Constantinos.

The name suits the poet remarkably well. There is perhaps no better word to describe the mode of his existence and his thematic concerns than constancy. He lived most of his life in the same city, held the same job (at the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation), and, in his poems, addressed the same subjects. One might be tempted to suggest that he had only two subjects: the past of Alexandria, and his own. On closer inspection, they may amount to the same thing.

Cavafy called himself a "historical poet." This means, for one, that he identified completely with the place of his birth, with its place in history, and with its insignificant, indeed shabby, present. Alexandria and its Hellenistic realm (the eastern Mediterranean in particular) were for him what Yoknapatawpha County was for Faulkner, Dublin for Joyce, New England for Robert Frost. He knew everyone and everything that had transpired there between 300 B.C. and, say, A.D. 600 thoroughly. Characters and events of that period--and not the most illustrious among them--were what the bulk of his poems addressed. However, Cavafy is not a poet of the heroic past, of the Greek cultural patrimony. As one of his critics aptly remarked, it is impossible to put his poems into high-school textbooks. The trouble is not so much his subject matter (although I imagine it is that, too) but his tonality.

For Cavafy was a historical poet not in the thematic or factual sense only. The term "historical" in his case has to do, above all, with his diction. This calls for some explanation.

Virtually every poet in this century appears to be extremely concerned with the possible existence of some sardonic reader who just might smirk and scowl at the poet's raptures and reveries. Every poet therefore tries to forge a diction that will shield him from the charge of emotionalism.

There are several strategies available here. …

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