A Distant Pleasure

Cavafy Keith Taylor on two new translations of Constantine Cavafy's poems:

My obsession with C.P. Cavafy, the definitive poet of modern Greek, started almost 40 years ago. Neither classicist nor philologist, certainly not a systematic scholar of anything, I was captivated by the poems that allowed immediate access, such as the famous “Waiting for the Barbarians,” where the irony of the ending—“And now what’s to become of us without barbarians. / Those people were a solution of a sort”—loses none of its power for its lack of subtlety.

I puzzled over other poems, too: what could I make of the music in “The God Abandons Anthony?” What was it, and where was it going? I looked for answers. As histories of the classical world, of the Hellenized Levant, of the transition from paganism to Christianity, and of Byzantium presented themselves to me in haphazard ways, I felt compelled to read them simply because they might help me understand a Cavafy poem. When the opportunity came to study modern Greek, I jumped at it. A large part of my reading life revolved around Cavafy. Many have been equally fascinated.

I know bookstore clerks, the assistant manager of a grocery store, and a professor of mathematics who can quote part of the almost canonical Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard translation of “Ithaka”: “As you set out for Ithaka / hope the voyage is a long one, / full of adventure, / full of discovery.” After Maurice Tempelsman read this translation at the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the poem assumed a special place in the American national story. It might be impossible and unnecessary for a new translation to supplant that. Still, Daniel Mendelsohn’s new C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems has provided context and versions of the poems that deepen and sometimes fundamentally alter our sense of many of them, and of the poet himself.