Previously I mentioned the sense of transience one finds in the poems of Constantine Cavafy.  Most of his life has certainly disappeared from notice.  One has the feeling only of passing years, boring in their obvious externals — he worked as a clerk of the Ministry of Public Works Irrigation Office — and of a secret life fed largely, as he grew older, by fantasy and memory.  But fantasy is illusion and memory fades.

Cavafy’s verse is often beautiful in its simplicity, yet that simplicity is not the cut-marble purity found in the ancient Greek Anthology.  It is instead, more hellenistic than hellene, because an undertone of decline and decay pervades it –and Cavafy does seem to have been — in spirit — a hellenist reborn.

He writes much about brief affairs that remain in  his mind only as bittersweet icons of memory before which he continually lights candles; but again, memory fades, and that mere fact becomes a part of one of his most affecting poems, in which we see time eroding even recollection until almost nothing is left.  Here is his poem MakriάEyes:

I’d like to speak about that memory…
but it no longer comes — there’s almost nothing left,
for it is far, off in my time of youth.
Skin as if made of jasmine…
that August — it was August — in the evening.
I just recall the eyes; they were — I think– a blue;
Ah, yes — a sapphire blue.

Here it is transliterated, so you may see the sound patterns we lose in translation:

Thάthela aftί tίn mnίmi na tin po…
Ma  έtsi esvίsthi pia…san tίpote then apomέni
yiatί makriά, sta prόta efivikά mou khroniά kίtai.
Thέrma san kamomέno  αpό iαsemί…
Εkίni τοu Avgούsτοu — Av’gοusτοs ίtan; — ί vradiά
Μόlis thimούmαi pia ta mάtia· ίsαn, thαrrό, maviά…
A nαi, mαviά; έnα sαpfίrinο mαvί.

The effectiveness of the poem lies precisely in showing us the fading of a beautiful memory until almost nothing is left, until little remains of the image but the impression of the jasmine whiteness of skin and the blue of the eyes — but even the latter requires effort to recall, which Cavafy shows us by his hesitant pauses.

Reading such verses — and Cavafy has more like this — is like watching the varnish on freshly-painted portraits darken and obscure the features over time; but with Cavafy, even the canvas that supports the images is disintegrating.  Yet he treasures even these decaying fragments.

There is another poem that seems to go naturally with this one.  I will just translate this time.  It is called “Grey“:

Looking at an opal — half grey —
I recalled two beautiful grey eyes
I saw some twenty years before.

For one month we did love
and then he left; I think to Smyrna,
to find work; I never saw him more.

They’ll have grown ugly — if he lives — those grey eyes;
 and spoiled would be that beautiful face.
My memory, keep them as they were.
And memory, bring back what you are able of that love of mine,
whatever you are able, bring back to me tonight. 

There is something very sad in all this, and that sorrow of aging — of loss of beauty, and its inevitable decay — pervades the poetry of Cavafy.


IONIKON: Constantine Cavafy and the Historical Imagination

There is an old Italian saying that the translator is a traitor.  That can at times be true, if a translation is manipulative and unfaithful to the original, but in general it is not true.  A translation is not an effort to betray, but rather an effort to wipe the dirt from a window, so that we may see — even if sight is distorted by bubbles and flaws in the windowpane — from one language or culture into another.  The more different the patterns of thought in one language are from another, the more difficult it is to translate faithfully.

Today I would like to discuss a poem by Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), who wrote in Greek but lived in Alexandria, in Egypt.  He is not a poet one finds in college anthologies generally, because first, he did not write in English, and second, many of his poems have to do with same-gender attraction and relationships, which is something only recently dealt with openly as our societal attitudes have become more tolerant and understanding.

A peculiarity of Cavafy is that he often writes the poetic equivalent of historical fiction; he puts himself into the minds and times of people long dead, often people who lived in the period and culture known as “hellenistic,” when — after the conquests of Alexander the Great — Greek culture and language and thought spread over a very wide area.

Cavafy’s verses deal also — either openly or by implication — with what I would call the “Christian Revolution,” — the rise of Christianity in the Mediterranean region with all the mixed good and evil that implies:  the joining of the new religion with the power and authority of the state, its astonishing intolerance of other ways of belief and thought, and how it caused the dying out of the pre-Christian world all around the Mediterranean Sea.

When we translate Cavafy into English, we get the meaning; but as is very common and unavoidable in translation, we lose the sound, and sound is a very great part of poetry.  So that loss is the distortion caused by the old and wavy glass in our window of view, but we should be glad that we can nonetheless see a good deal of Cavafy’s poem through translation, in spite of that.  The one I discuss today is called Ionikon;  that is sometimes translated simply as “Ionia,” or “To Ionia,” or “Song of Ionia.”  Ionia, in ancient times, was a Greek-speaking cultural region in the western part of what today is Turkey.

Here, first,  is Cavafy’s Ionikon in transliterated Greek, so that you may see the sound patterns we shall inevitably miss in English translation.  I have indicated accented syllables:

Yiatί ta spάsame t’ agάlmatά ton,
yiatί tous thiόxamen ap’ tous naούs ton,
thiόlou then pέthanan yi’ aftό i theί.
O yi tis Ionίas, sέna agapoύn akόmi,
sέna i psikhέs ton enthimoύntai akόmi.
San ximerόni epάno sou proί avgoustiάtiko
tin atmosfaίra sou pernά sfrίgos ap’ tin zoί ton.
kai kάpot’ aitherί efivikί morfί,
aόristi, me thiάva grίgoro,
epάno apό tous lόfous sou pernά.

We may translate it like this:


Because we smashed their images —
Because we cast them from their temples —
It does not mean the gods no longer live. 
O land of Ionia, they love you still; 
You enliven their souls still;
And when an August morn dawns upon you
Your atmosphere turns vibrant with the vigor of their lives;
And sometimes an etheric, youthful form,
Indefinite in moving swiftly by,
Will pass above the summits of your hills. 

And what does this mean?  Well, it is rather a grander equivalent of “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.”  Cavafy is saying that even though the people of Ionia have changed their faith — even though they have smashed the statues of the gods and have expelled the gods from their shrines –nonetheless the gods have not stopped loving the Ionian land; that sometimes, in the still of an August dawn, one may catch sight of an airy, youthful figure –indistinct and moving so swiftly as to almost be unseen — passing above the summits of the Ionian hills.

That figure, hazy and uncertain, is of course a god in youthful and immortal form — barely visible to the mortal eye, yet so full of divine energy the air is vibrant with his passing.  Cavafy does not identify the youthful passer-by, but it is likely the god Hermes, the swift messenger of the gods — Hermes, god of athletes and of herds, of roads and travelling, who is also the guide of the soul into the afterlife.  One of the forms he took — for the gods can change their forms at will — is that of a handsome, youthful athlete.

Ionikon is actually the final revision of an earlier poem that was titled first “Remembrance” or “Memory,” and later “Thessaly.”  The earlier version begins by telling the reader that the gods do not die; it is the beliefs of the mortal mob that die.  This was expressed in more refined and suggestive form in the final version, Ionikon.

Seen in its overall context, one has the feeling the poem was written by a fellow of rather noble spirit — still quite pre-Christian and “pagan” at heart — who has watched the fickleness of humans and their changes of allegiance, and who still prefers the old ways.  Cavafy himself seems to have been Greek Orthodox nominally and in general practice, but he had the ability to put himself completely into other minds in other times, and that is what he seems to be doing here.  The earlier, anonymous writer into whose mind Cavafy puts himself in Ionikon is saying that the attitudes of mere mortals — those lesser than gods — may change with time and fickleness, but the gods themselves are immortal and do not change, nor are they dependent upon human constancy of faith; the gods have their own lives and affairs that continue on a much greater time scale than the human.

In spite of the frequent sensuality one finds in many of Cavafy’s other poems, underlying them all is a sense of time and transience and loss.  His fondness for writing himself into far earlier times and minds only adds to that sense of constant change, and of our final inability as mortal, aging humans to hold on to anything, no matter how much desired or loved.  It is this profound sense of transience that the poems of Cavafy share with hokku, no matter how dissimilar the two kinds of verse are in other ways.

Cavafy’s odd ability to think himself into another time and person is one of the chief characteristics of his work, and his facility in so doing makes his “historical” poems seem very real.

Here is the poem Ionikon in its original Greek, for those who may wish to see it:

Γιατί τα σπάσαμε τ’ αγάλματά των
γιατί τους διώξαμεν απ’ τους ναούς των,
διόλου δεν πέθαναν γι’ αυτό οι θεοί.
Ω γη της Ιωνίας, σένα αγαπούν ακόμη,
σένα η ψυχές των ενθυμούνται ακόμη.
Σαν ξημερώνει επάνω σου πρωί αυγουστιάτικο
την ατμοσφαίρα σου περνά σφρίγος απ’ την ζωή των·
και κάποτ’ αιθερία εφηβική μορφή,
αόριστη, με διάβα γρήγορο,
επάνω από τους λόφους σου περνά.

The very best site on the Internet at present for those who wish to read more of Cavafy is the Official Web Site of the Cavafy Archive.  You will find it in both Greek and English:




One of my early verses:

When, in the hidden days,
The whirlpools silver-swirled within the water,
Michael walked and climbed among the creeping ivy
Green beside the river deep;
He smiled and softly whispered in the shadow-sunny —
The water snails were black, and strange as sleep.
Great leaves grew red upon his crayon paper,
And wet-dry stones came home to live with him;
Then all the world was light, and all things living,
Through the days before the sun grew dim.

I suppose that is my equivalent of Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality, and the Fern Hill of Dylan Thomas.




It is doubtful if anyone short of Pope John XXIII did as much for the public image of the Catholic Church in the latter half of the 20th century as did the convert writer Thomas Merton.

Looking back on that period, one realizes that Merton had his own public image as a major literary ascetic and “mystic” after he had become a Trappist monk.  But the then-private reality was that as a monk, he had problems with alcohol, problems with romance, problems with his ecclesiastical “superiors,” and, paradoxically, some rather major problems with basic Catholic doctrine.  In his first and most popular (and somewhat bowdlerized) major work, The Seven Story Mountain, he seems to cheerfully ignore or leap over Catholic doctrine in his enthusiasm for the ascetic, contemplative life in monasticism, which paradoxically he never actually lived.  In this and in his ideal “mysticism,” Merton, Like the pseudo-Zen writer Alan Watts, was great at presenting a public image that was all facade, image without substance.

 Suffice it to say that the Thomas Merton one saw in the writings of the 20th century is not the Thomas Merton of the revealing biographies of the 21st.

All of this is just a lead-in to the subject of “religious” poetry.  It is a category that, for appreciation, requires one to put one’s own belief system, or absence of belief system, on hold.  

What is probably Merton’s finest composition is an overtly religious poem on the death of his brother in war.  To appreciate it requires that we put on, for the moment, the odd notion that the intentional privations and self-denials of the living can benefit the dead.

Merton begins in excellent form:

Sweet brother, if I do not sleep
My eyes are flowers for your tomb;
And if I cannot eat my bread,
My fasts shall live like willows where you died.
If in the heat I find no water for my thirst,
My thirst shall turn to springs for you, poor traveller.

All very good so far, both rhythmic and effective in simple imagery.

Where, in what desolate and smokey country,
Lies your poor body, lost and dead?
And in what landscape of disaster
Has your unhappy spirit lost its road?

Also good — no straying from the theme of concern.

Come, in my labor find a resting place
And in my sorrows lay your head,
Or rather take my life and blood
And buy yourself a better bed–
Or take my breath and take my death
And buy yourself a better rest.

With that, Merton introduces an awkward note, and the segment is not quite up to what preceded it.

When all the men of war are shot
And flags have fallen into dust,
Your cross and mine shall tell men still
Christ died on each, for both of us.

With that, unfortunately, Merton has lost the grace of his beginning completely, and simplicity becomes simplisticism in the rhythm and message of those unpleasing sing-song lines.  One wishes the quatrain had been omitted before publication — but too late.

Fortunately, Merton does not continue on this downhill course, but returns once more to the grace of the beginning:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:
The money of Whose tears shall fall
Into your weak and friendless hand,
And buy you back to your own land:
The silence of Whose tears shall fall
Like bells upon your alien tomb.
Hear them and come: they call you home.

With those lines we are again back to the smooth-flowing speech of the beginning, the theme of the dead benefitting from the sacrifices of others — a kind of Catholic version of the Buddhist “transfer of merits,” but through asceticism rather than active good deeds.

Of course non-Christians find all this talk of Christ a bit nonessential, which is why, to appreciate the poem, one must put one’s own beliefs aside  to understand the spirit behind the work — the desire to benefit the departed, to see our suffering and the suffering of others — the world’s suffering — in a larger context.  It is only by doing so that we can feel the beauty of these lines:

For in the wreckage of your April Christ lies slain,
And Christ weeps in the ruins of my spring:

Wreckage and death, smoke and ruins — very effective in evoking the suffering of war.  Add these to the simple images of flowers, water, bread, willows, and tears, and one has a very good poem indeed — with the exception of that awkward quatrain, which seems foreign and inserted and out of place in the ascetic simplicity of the rest.

Merton is saying to his brother, “Through my asceticism and self-denial, I wish to buy you comfort and peace and rest.”  Thus the notion of “buying” in the verse, and the equation of tears and money.

Merton, in his writings, talked much about the “ascetic” life, but as we have seen, that was an idealized image for public consumption.  Suffice it to say that the impression given by the poem does not fit the reality of his condition.  We should, then, just go with the spirit of the moment and expression of sincere love for a lost brother that we find in the poem.  If we were to judge the worth of poems by the lives of the poets who wrote them, we would find precious little left in the history of literature to appreciate.

There is an unusual and rather remarkable book by Paul Hourihan titled The Death of Thomas Merton (Vedantic Shores press, 2003).  Presented as a novel, it is actually a detailed and thoughtful meditation on, and examination of, the failure of Merton to become the mystic-ascetic figure he presented himself as (and his readers thought he was) in his books.

The other great English-language “religious” poet of Catholicism — also a convert, and an even more unhappy one —  is of course Gerard Manley Hopkins, and we can only say of him that as a poet, a greater than Merton is here.  Still, we find some similarity in the imagery of the beginning of Merton’s verse when placed beside the simplicity of Hopkins’ Heaven Haven:

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.

And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

The poem bears the superscription “A nun takes the veil”

One would like to think that Hopkins himself found the simple peace and satisfaction expressed in the verse, but his biography tells us otherwise.  Again we have the contrast between poetic idealism and harsh reality.