Posts filed under ‘Greek’
The lecture is approximately an hour long. Fagles is an excellent storyteller who sprinkles the lecture with readings from his translation, the original Greek text and some very funny comments. Do give it a listen.
His translation at Amazon.com.
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.
Agamemnon: Help, help! I am wounded, murdered, here in the inner room!
Chorus: Hush, listen! Who cried ‘Murder’? Do you know that voice?
Agamemnon: Help, help again! Murder – a second, mortal blow!
Chorus 1. That groan tells me the deed is done. It was the king.
Come, let’s decide together on the safest plan.
2. This is what I advise – to send a herald round
Bidding the citizens assemble here in arms.
3. Too slow. I say we should burst in at once, and catch
Murder in the act, before the blood dries on the sword.
4. I share your feeling – that is what we ought to do,
Or something of that kind. Now is the time to act.
5. It’s plain what this beginning points to: the assassins
Mean to establish a tyrannical regime.
6. Yes – while we talk and talk; but action, spurning sleep,
Tramples the gentle face of caution in the dust.
7. I can suggest no plan that might prove practical.
I say, let those who took this step propose the next.
8. I am of the same opinion. If the king is dead,
I know no way to make him live by argument.
9. Then shall we patiently drag out our servile years
Governed by these disgraces of our royal house?
10. No, no! Intolerable! Who would not rather die?
A milder fate than living under tyranny!
11. Wait; not too fast. What is our evidence? Those groans?
Are we to prophecy from them that the king’s dead?
12. We must be certain; this excitement’s premature.
Guessing and certain knowledge are two different things.
Chorus: I find this view supported on all sides: that we
Make full enquiry what has happened to the king.
[translated from the Greek by Philip Vellacott]
It’s perfect, isn’t it?
Here it is, the moment “when Agamemnon cried aloud”. The rightful ruler of the Argives, returned triumphant from Troy, is treacherously assassinated by his wife and her lover. As his death cries echo, Aeschylus traces, in 28 unforgettable lines, the way the initial outrage of the citizenry, their call for rebellion, is tempered and compromised until it becomes little more than meek acquiescence. This failure of the Chorus to act will leave the land in the grip of a tyranny from which only the return of Orestes, in the second play of the trilogy, will rescue it. This is how freedom is lost.
What I love about these lines is partly the sheer theatricality of the scene (the way Aeschylus, by splitting up the Chorus, creates a sense of panic and confusion, bringing this hurried and ultimately ineffective council to life); partly the Beckett like dialogue (“Now is the time to act” says one citizen, another, in words that will shortly seem prophetic says “action, spurning sleep, / tramples the gentle face of caution in the dust” – yet they all do nothing); but mostly the incredible accuracy of Aeschylus’ portrayal, his insight into human nature, which ensures that some 2,500 years after these lines were written, they seem just as relevant, just as real.
Sails on the Nile,
songless birds with one wing
searching silently for the other;
groping in the sky’s absence
for the body of a marble youth;
inscribing on the blue with invisible ink
a desperate cry.
(translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
Another day, another overlooked poet. I’m very fond of Seferis – his poems are lyrical and, to me, quasi-mythic, in that they evoke a yearning for an imagined past. It may just be my imagination putting in a little overtime, but I always seem to sense beneath the metaphors and images of Seferis’ work (which are glorious in themselves) what Keats would call “the shadow of a magnitude”. There is nothing postured about Seferis’ engagement with legend, his is a tradition of lived myth, as though it were only yesterday that he, a simple sailor, had stepped off the ship on the shores of Circe and watched his beloved Elpenor die.
Today’s poem is short and simple – a quick flutter of images passing vividly before the eye. I’m not so hot about “the body of a marble youth” bit, but I think both the “songless birds with one wing” image, and the image of the sails like nibs writing their invisible message across the sky are stunning.
P.S. Seferis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1963. You can read his Nobel Prize Lecture here, with it’s introduction to the evolution of Greek Poetry.