The God Forsakes Antony
When suddenly at the midnight hour
an invisible troupe is heard passing
with exquisite music, with shouts –
do not mourn in vain your fortune failing you now,
your works that have failed, the plans of your life
that have all turned out to be illusions.
As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
bid her farewell, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all do not be fooled, do not tell yourself
it was only a dream, that your ears deceived you;
do not stoop to such vain hopes.
As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
as it becomes you who are worthy of such a city;
approach the window with firm step,
and listen with emotion, but not
with the entreaties and complaints of the coward,
as a last enjoyment listen to the sounds,
the exquisite instruments of the mystical troupe,
and bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing.
[translated from the Greek by Rae Dalven]
“Fortune and Antony part here; even here / do we shake hands”
– William Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra, IV.12
We all know, or think we know, when the Fates turned against Antony. The coast off Actium, Cleopatra’s ships retreating into the fog, taking his hopes with them. It’s an incredibly dramatic moment: a betrayal at once political, military and personal; a battle whose outcome will set the course of Roman history for decades to come, prompting no less a poet than Virgil to place it at the very center of Aeneas’ shield.
It is characteristic of Cavafy that he turns away from this grand scene, and chooses to focus instead on a quieter, more meditative moment, replacing public abandonment with private self-knowledge, the cry of arms with the piping of an “invisible troupe”. This is the true defeat of Antony, the moment when he faces the truth about the future, walking up to it the way one walks up to a window and looks out. Everything that has gone before has led to this, everything that is yet to come will follow, it is here, in the quiet of the Alexandrian night, that the break is made.
Paradoxically, that break is also the acme of Antony’s glory, the point at which, by accepting the inevitable, by not stooping to vain hopes but acting “as if courageous” (such a beautiful phrase!), that Antony truly becomes heroic, takes on all the Sisyphean dignity that a mortal can claim. It is by breaking free of History that we become individuals. That is why Antony, with no god to support him, is more real a champion to us than a thousand Octavians.
Not that Antony is the first hero to be forsaken by the Gods. On the contrary, in recognizing that the beloved city is lost to him, and that he must play his part out to the bitter end, he becomes the poetic successor of Hector and Turnus. Cavafy understands better than anyone the stuff that myth is made of, the creed of tragedy and its heroes, and deploys that knowledge here to devastating effect.
This is an incredible poem – a testament to the simplicity of perfection that is the mark of true genius. It’s not just his talent for melancholy, his ability to bring history to life, to make us inhabit the myth, his knack for honing in on the one critical moment, or even the exquisite craftsmanship with which, for example, Antony’s doubts and weaknesses are laid out for us by a kind of verbal reflection, that make Cavafy a great poet. It’s the way his poems, this one included, move off the page in two directions at once: the first horizontal, making us think of the before and after of the story the poem is taken from; the second vertical, leading us into the land of metaphor, where Antony’s Alexandria can be lover, ambition or life itself.
Joseph Brodsky writes:
“Cavafy did a very simple thing. There are two elements which usually constitute a metaphor: the object of description and the object to which the first is imagistically, or simply grammatically allied. The implication which the second part usually contains provides the writer with the possibility of virtually endless development. This is the way the poem works. What Cavafy did, almost from the beginning of his career as a poet, was to jump straight to the second part: for the rest of that career he developed and elaborated upon its implicit notions without bother to return to the first part, assumed as self-evident.”
This is the real magic of Cavafy, the reason his poems can seem so rich in wisdom. “Heard melodies”, Keats reminds us, “are sweet, but those unheard /are sweeter” . By leaving his metaphors unheard, Cavafy allows us to populate them with our own imagination, our own emotion, our own memories. By simplifying the historical to its most basic components, by stripping it down to the universal, to the poetic (for what is poetry, in the end, but our shared imagination), Cavafy makes it possible for us to see the myth in our own terms, apply it to our own lives. And that, after all, is what myth is for.