Charles Simic on C.P. Cavafy

From the London Review of Books:

Cavafy2If he hadn’t been a poet, Cavafy said, he would have been a historian. ‘In part to examine an era/and in part to while away the time,/last night I picked up to read/ a collection of Ptolemaic inscriptions,’ is how he begins one poem. The historical periods that interested him were the Hellenic Age (fourth to first century BC), the Roman (first century BC to fourth century AD) and the late Byzantine (11th to 14th century), with their cosmopolitan way of life, their high civilisation and the political and religious turmoil that eventually did them in. Small episodes or debacles in the history of old Alexandrians, Antiochians, Seleucians or the Hellenes of Egypt, Syria and Medea provide his subjects. Cavafy’s historical poems are both nostalgic and realistic. He may grow dreamy – as he often does – thinking of some beautiful young man’s heroic life and early death, but he doesn’t forget the cynical power struggles of the day. He’s ‘more coroner than commentator, equally disinclined to offer blame or grant the benefit of the doubt’, is how Seamus Heaney puts it in his foreword to Haviaras’s translations. Tyrants with one mad idea in their head fascinated Cavafy. He has six poems, for example, about Julian the Apostate, a vicious fourth-century Roman emperor who tried to abolish Christianity and return to an intolerant version of paganism.

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