An Ode to a Greek Poet; ANSWERS TO CORRESPONDENTS
Byline: Compiled by Charles Legge
At a Leonard Cohen concert, he said his song Alexandra Leaving was based on a poem by a famous Greek poet. Who was this, and which poem?
C. P. CAVAFY (Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis 1863-1933), born in Alexandria, Egypt, where he spent much of his adult life, was the leading poet of modern Greek literature.
His father was a prosperous merchant and the family lived for a time in Liverpool, acquiring British nationality.
A biographical note written by Cavafy reads: 'I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria, at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently, I visited this country as an adult, but for a short period of time.
'I have also lived in France. During my adolescence, I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French and a little Italian.' It was in Constantinople that 19-year-old Cavafy met his numerous Greek relatives and became fascinated by the Greek culture and history of the city. This latent Hellenism became the basis of his poetry.
It was possibly here that the young poet had his first homosexual encounter. He later wrote: 'Themes of my poetry were fashioned and the area of my art was mapped out, in the wanton days of my youth.' Cavafy developed a unique poetic style, mixing high literary language with the Greek vernacular. His poems often superimpose events from Hellenistic and Byzantine history on contemporary affairs, as in two of his best-known poems, The God Abandons Antony, and Ithaca, both written in 1911.
The Antony in Cavafy's poem is Marcus Antonius, Cleopatra's lover. The poem (right) refers to Plutarch's story that when Antony was besieged in Alexandria by Octavian, the night before the city fell he heard an invisible troupe leaving the city.
He heard the sounds of instruments and voices making their way through the city. Then he passed out; the god Bacchus, Antony's protector, was deserting him. It's a lesson in how to cope with grief. Leonard Cohen changed Alexandria, a beloved city, to Alexandra, a beloved woman.
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear An invisible procession going by With exquisite music, voices, 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.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage, As is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city, Go firmly to the window And listen with deep emotion, but not With the whining, the pleas of a coward; Listen -- your final delectation -- to the voices, To the exquisite music of that strange procession, And say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
Marcus Brightman, St Neots, Cambs.
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