A Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe


In Cavafy’s world, everything has already happened. The fortune is spent, the pantheon abandoned, the body grown old. This overpowering sense of belatedness is what provokes the tone of his poems — rueful, distanced, knowing but never wise. Mendelsohn maintains that, given the translatability of Cavafy’s tone, he has focused his attention on “other aspects of the poetry” — the exquisite care Cavafy took with diction, syntax, meter and rhyme. But in fact this is not exactly the case. It is only through attention to these minute aspects of poetic language that tone is produced. And Mendelsohn is assiduously attentive. Earlier translators have, to varying degrees, rightly emphasized the prosaic flatness of Cavafy’s language; the flatness is crucial to the emotional power of the poems, since it prevents their irony from seeming caustic, their longing from seeming nostalgic. But as Mendelsohn shows, Cavafy’s language was in subtle ways more artificial than we’ve understood. Most important, Cavafy mingled high and low diction, employing both vernacular Greek and a literary Greek invented at the turn of the 19th century.

more from the NY Times here.