|Cavafy versus Aeschylus ||G.P. Savidis
|[In the introductory lecture of this series I tried to argue the following three points:
(a) That the Burden of the Past is not a modern cultural concept and that it was felt even by Aeschylus.
(b) That this Burden can be advantageously alleviated by creative competition.
(c) That cultural bastardy is vitally important for the renovation of any national literature burdened by a long hut uneven tradition.
This last point was illustrated by short quotations from Cornaros, Solomos and Sikelianos ¯ and unwittingly blurred by a nearly lethal overdose of Palamas’ Death of the Ancients, which was meant to show how, by the beginning of the 20th century, major Greek poets felt sufficiently confident to denigrate ancestor-worship and to project themselves as future ancestors.]
Today’s lecture and that of next Wednesday will try to concentrate upon two Modern Greek poets who had special links with Cambridge, namely Constantine Cavafy and George Seferis. The friendship of Cavafy and Forster is well-known, even if it still requires further attention and investigation. What is perhaps less well-known is that Forster was introduced to Cavafy by another Kingsman, Robert (or Robin) Allason Furness, whose name as a translator of Callimachus and of selections from the Greek Anthology should be familiar to the senior members of this Faculty.
We also know that Forster tried to promote Cavafy’s poetry in England through the authorized translations of yet another Kingsman, the Alexandrian lawyer George Valassopoulo ¯ but their joint efforts came to nought, partly because of Cavafy’s reluctance to put up for sale a “suitable” selection of his privately selected poems, and mainly because of Valassopoulos’ puritanical attitude towards an essential aspect of Cavafy’s poetry.
This aspect, namely the erotic ¯or at any rate those poems which have recently earned for Cavafy the ineptly catachrestic label of gay¯ will be hardly visible in today’s lecture. For our present subject concerns a very different kind of desire: one which last Wednesday was simply described as the common literary urge for creative competition ¯ and which an American colleague has designated with the rather inappropriate legal term of Eminent Domain.
According then to Webster’s Dictionary, eminent domain means “the power of a government over all the property within its limits, by which it is entitled to appropriate, or to authorize the appropriation of, private property for public use, giving just compensation to the owner”.
Since I would hate to leave you with the wrong impression concerning Richard Ellman’s otherwise highly readable book, allow me to treat you to the second paragraph of his introduction:
Because Yeats declined to subside, like some writers, into addled repetitiveness, his conduct with the slightly older Oscar Wilde and then with the younger Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Auden, offers a history of eminent domain. Among poets he was one of the most generous, not so generous however as to fail to take over what he needed. Invited to dine with Oscar Wilde on Christmas day, 1888, he consumed not only his portion of the turkey but all Wilde’s esthetic system, which Wilde read to him from the proofs of “The Decay of Lying”. Once expropriated, this was developed and re-unified in Yeats’s mind. If Yeats was quick to confiscate from Wilde, a reverse maneuver also occurred. As Wilde prepared his own fall, he read with admiration Yeats’s story “The Crucifixion of the Outcast”; while in prison he obtained it again along with its companion stories of The Secret Rose; and in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and “De Profundis” he helped himself to some of Yeats’ imagery of the noble malefactor.
Meanwhile, our subject seems to have vanished before ever quite appearing. Namely, Aeschylus as a test case for Cavafy’s lust for creative competition. So let me proceed at once with establishing a proper perspective for my brief.
A generation ago, our ideas of poetics were largely dominated by those of T. S. Eliot. There was not the slightest doubt that his was the poetic kingdom and the power and the glory ¯ except perhaps among some overseas cousins who seemed to confuse Downing Street, London, with Downing College, Cambridge. So the Alpha of our Gospel according to St. Tom was his 1919 essay on “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, and its Omega the final section of East Coker:
... And what there is to conquer
By strength or submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate ¯but there is no competition¯
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
“Like hell it isn’t!”, as an American friend in the publishing business once remarked. “Poetry may be chicken-feed in terms of net sales, but it can be worth a million dollars of P. R. ¯ which is short for prestige.’’
Anyway, it took me some ten years to find out that from Cavafy’s point of view literary creation meant constant competition with others as well as with one’s own former selves. And the first explicit testimony was the following passage from a lengthy reading-note of his, written in English during the late Nineties, apropos Gibbon’s contemptuous description of St. Simeon Stylites’ self-imposed martyrdom:
I have met with only one poem on Simeon Stylites, but it is in no way worthy of the subject.
The poem of Tennyson, though it contains some well-made verses, fails in tone. Its great defect lies in its form of a monologue. The complaints of Simeon, his eagerness for the “meed of saints, the white robe and the palm”, his dubious humility, his latent vanity, are not objectionable in themselves and maybe were necessary to the poem, but they have been handled in a common, almost a vulgar manner. It was a very difficult task ¯a task reserved, perhaps, for some mighty king of art¯ to find fitting language for so great a saint, so wonderful a man.
About the same time when this note was first published we found among Cavafy’s papers an unpublished poem, written some twenty years later, in 1917, which is now rated as one of his finest dramatic monologues. Here it is as originally translated by Edmund Keeley and myself:
Yes, I know his new poems;
all Beirut is raving about them.
I’ll study them some other day.
I can’t today because I’m rather upset.
Certainly he’s more learned in Greek than Libanius.
But a better poet than Meleager? I don’t think so.
O Mebis, no more of Libanius and books
and all these trivialities!... Mebis, yesterday ¯
it happened by chance ¯ I found myself under Simeon’s pillar.
I slipped in among the Christians
who were praying and worshipping in silence,
on their knees; not being a Christian myself
I couldn’t share their spiritual serenity ¯
and I trembled all over and suffered;
and I shuddered, all upset by compassion.
Please don’t smile; for thirty-five years ¯ think of it ¯
winter and summer, night and day, for thirty-five years
he’s been living on top of a pillar martyring himself.
Before either of us was born ¯ I’m twenty-nine,
you must be younger than me ¯
before we were born, just imagine it,
Simeon climbed up this pillar
and has stayed there ever since facing God.
I have no mind for work today. ¯
But, Mebis, you better tell them this:
whatever the other sophists may say,
I certainly recognize this Lamon
as the first poet of Syria.
Why Cavafy never published this poem is happily not part of our present concern. For the time being, we may now be convinced of his competitive attitude towards Tennyson, and although we have moved many centuries closer to our subject, Aeschylus is still nowhere in sight. Furthermore, anyone conversant with the Cavafy canon would be justified in observing that Aeschylus’ name in any case makes only one official appearance in Cavafy’s poetry, in 1920, when he wrote and published the poem entitled “Young Men of Sidon (400 A.D.)”.
Even so seasoned a reader as Marguerite Yourcenar has stated, in her admirable Présentation Critique de Constantin Cavafy, that “Aðéóôßá”, the poem “inspired by a fragment, transmitted by Plato, of a lost tragedy by Aeschylus, and three or four pieces more or less directly derived from Homer, represent the only borrowings made by Cavafy from the poets of Antiquity. In all other instances, he draws his inspiration almost exclusively from historians and sophists, i.e. Greek prose-writers’’.
This is close enough to the superficial truth, but ¯ wait a minute! Is not “Apistia” (variously mistranslated as “Treachery” or “infidelity” or “Unfaithfulness” instead of “Perfidy”), is this not a poem published in 1904 and therefore antedating Aeschylus’ alleged first and only public appearance by 16 years?
Indeed it is. So, please bear with a gait modelled on the pedestrian English of Cavafy’s Character Roll as a permanently temporary Anglo-Egyptian civil servant: “a trifle overdeliberate”.
Since 1968, the full corpus of Cavafy’s surviving poems consists of 256 verse compositions written over a period of fifty years. This grand total is divided, like Gaul, into three parts: the 154 canonical poems, the 75 hidden poems, and the 27 repudiated ones; some of the latter were subsequently rewritten by Cavafy and three or four of them were diffidently included by him in the canon.
Now, of all these 256 compositions, fifteen (or 5,8%) and more or less directly connected with ancient drama, and ten of them (i.e. 3.9%) may be linked with Aeschylus. Furthermore, it is interesting to note that all but one of these fifteen poems were composed within the same period extending from October 1892 to May 1903, when Cavafy, in his fortieth year, painfully reached a relative poetic maturity.
Before turning to the poems still potentially linked with Aeschylus, it might be useful to see who are the other Greek dramatic poets referred to by Cavafy. Thus, in one and the same repudiated poem, entitled “The Ancient Tragedy”, in addition to Aeschylus both Euripides and Sophocles are mentioned in the same breath, with Agathon thrown in literally for good measure. Nothing unnatural so far ¯ except the platitudinous poem itself, which for a man of 34 is even worse than it sounds in its only available English translation. Ten years later, in 1902, Cavafy tried to save this poem by a thorough revision, but apparently gave up in despair.
Sophocles earns one more mention in a poem first written in 1893, rewritten in 1913 and then unjustly put aside forever. Its title is line 865 of the Ajax (“Ôá äå Üëëá åí ¢äïõ ôïéò êÜôù ìõèÞóïìáé” or “The rest I will tell to those down in Hades”) ¯ an exit line notorious for its syntactic anomaly, hence all the more dramatic, but twisted into multiple irony by Cavafy. Here it is (alas still unrhymed) in a slightly improved version of the original Keeley-Savidis translation:
“THE REST I WILL TELL TO THOSE DOWN IN HADES"
“Indeed’’, said the proconsul, closing the book,
this line is beautiful and very true;
Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.
How much we will tell down there, how many things,
and how very different we will appear to have been.
Whatever we protect here like sleepless watchmen,
those wounds and secrets locked inside us,
day after day with an overbearing anxiety ¯
we will tell all, freely and clearly, there.
“Add this,” said the sophist half-smiling,
if they speak of such things down there
and if they care about them any more.”
One more good poem of the same period, “Oedipus”, was written in 1895, published in 1898, and then discarded for complex reasons that are still a riddle.
Of the two English translations that are available in print, I have chosen lan Scott-Kilvert’s, which is also the hardest to come by:
Above him the Sphinx hovered, poised to strike.
Her teeth and claws were bared
and in her body all the cruelty of life.
Beneath her first onslaught Oedipus fell:
the very sight of her turned his limbs to water:
such a countenance and such a voice
until that instant he had never dreamed of.
Yet even as the monster’s feet press down his body
his wits return.
Suddenly the fear of her has vanished,
the answer is upon his tongue, he will prevail.
And yet he feels no triumph in this conquest.
His glance is filled with melancholy,
he does not look at the Sphinx: his eyes travel beyond,
along that narrow road that leads to Thebes,
and one day will end his journey at Colonus.
And for an instant
the vision unfolds clearly within his brain
how there the Sphinx will speak to him again
and question him with harder and greater riddles,
riddles that have no answer.
The obvious connection of this poem with Sophocles is perversely deviated by its epigraph duly warning us that it was “written after reading a description of the painting Oedipe et le Sphinx by Gustave Moreau”.
And yet, the Oedipus Rex is probably the only ancient Greek tragedy that Cavafy ever saw on stage ¯ performed at the Comédie Française on June 19, 1897, and starring Mounet-Sully; actually it was part of an irreverent double-bill, beginning with L’Autographe, a one-act comedy by Henri Meilhac, de l’Académie Française, half-remembered nowadays as the collaborator of Ludovic Halévy in some librettos of Offenbach’s most enjoyable spoofs, like La Belle Hélène or La Vie Parisienne.
Euripides gets even more short-changed in 1899, when Cavafy wrote a poem entitled “The Intervention of the Gods”, mocking the futility of the deus ex machina in actual life and perhaps Nietzsche’s Ewige Wiederkunft. The poem is adorned with two unexpected epigraphs, both apposite but made incongruous by their juxtaposition. The first is from Emerson’s “Give All to Love”:
The gods arrive.
The second epigraph is double-barrelled: two quotations from Act II, scene i, and Act V, scene x, of L’Etrangère by Alexandre Dumas, fils:
RÉMONIN. ¯ ...Il disparaîtra au moment nécessaire; les dieux interviendront.
Mme de RUMIERES. ¯ Comme dans les tragédies antiques?
Mme DE RUMIERES. ¯ Qu’y a-t-il?
RÉMONIN. ¯ Les Dieux sont arrivés.
A few years later, Cavafy had a final look at the poem, pinned on it a piece of paper saying “This is a good poem. But the second quotation is objectionable”, and left it at that. The rest of the story pertains to the tangled tale of Cavafy’s theology and sexual phantasies.
Having got so far, let us have a brief look at the comic poets appearing in Cavafy’s poetry.
Aristophanes is nowhere mentioned or alluded to, but Menander is invoked at the expense of Terence in an 1893 sonnet entitled “A Disgruntled Spectator”, once playfully translated by Peter Mackridge. Finally, a hint of Cavafy’s forthcoming semi-dramatic technique is provided by an insipid, almost journalistic piece of verse reporting in 1892 the recent publication ot Herodas’ Mimiambi. In this context, a marginal mention of the well-known poem, entitled “The First Step”, may be in order: merely because it presents a most uncharacteristic Theocritus moralizing to an imaginary young poet apotropaically named Eumenes.
Up to this point the scales have been discreetly loaded in favour of Aeschylus ¯ though his presence in Cavafy’s poetry may still seem to you as substantial as that of the bat in Strauss’ Die Fledermaus or of the King of Asine in Seferis’ best known poem.
This impression is not likely to be dispelled by a closer examination of the first half of the possibly relevant poems composed during the period 1892-1903. Indeed, the four titles of compositions written between October 1892 and August 1893 promise more than they actually deliver.
So, the rejected poem entitled “The Vote of Athena”, although structured as a dialogue between the goddess and the citizens of Athens concerning the foundation of the Areopagus and emphasizing the maxim of in dubio pro reo, contains no reference to Orestes. Therefore it is more likely to have been inspired by one of Dr. William Smith’s Classical Dictionaries than by Aeschylus’ Eumenides.
The next rejected poem is “The Tears of the Sisters of Phaethon” and it ends with the transubstantiation of those tears into amber. Even though one may be tempted to assume that Cavafy decided to emulate Aeschylus’ lost Heliades, the likeliest source ¯barring Dr. Smith¯ is Apollonius of Rhodes or Diodorus of Sicily.
A similar kind of wishful thinking would connect Cavafy’s version of Priam’s nocturnal ride to ransom the corpse of Hector, not with its primary and extant Homeric source, but with Aeschylus’ lost ¸êôïñïò Ëýôñá. Especially since we know that during this same period, i.e. 1892-1896, Cavafy tried competing with the lliad in two other poems: “The Funeral of Sarpedon” and “The Horses of Achilles” ¯ although it is a fact that later, in “Apistia”, we will see him competing simultaneously with Homer and Aeschylus and Plato.
And the last piece of flimsy evidence rests solely upon the potentially inappropriate word Eumenides in the original (1893) title and final line of the well-known early poem concerning Nero, entitled “The Footsteps” since 1909. Inappropriate, I suggest, because in so finicky a writer as Cavafy one would normally have expected the word Erinyes ¯or Furies in English¯ which was only introduced in the 1909 version.
You will agree, I hope, when I say that none of the above poems can, by itself, be accepted as evidence ¯ not even for a reasonably working hypothesis of Cavafy’s special interest in Aeschylus. At best, all of them, taken as a whole, might be considered as correlative if not cumulative evidence for an otherwise established case.
Well, a kind of case has been already established by the mention of “Apistia”, the 1904 poem, headed by Plato’s epigraph from the Republic that preserves some 9 lines of Aeschylus’ lost ¼ðëùí Êñßóéò. Here it is in John Mavrogordato’s translation, which is accompanied by a funny note stating that “The original is written in the metre of ‘The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey’ (the Latin ‘Saturnian’)”:
Then though there are many other things
that we praise in Homer, this we will not praise...
nor shall we approve of Aeschylus when his Thetis
says that Apollo, singing at her wedding
... Foretold the happy fortunes of her issue
their days prolonged from pain and sickness free,
and rounding out the tale of heaven’s blessings
raised the proud paean making glad my heart.
And I believed that Phoebus’ mouth divine filled
with the breath of prophecy could not lie.
But he himself the singer...
is now himself the slayer of my son.
Plato, Republic 383B (tr. Paul Shorey, Loeb Classics)
When they were marrying Thetis and Peleus
Apollo rose up at the splendid table
and called them blessed, the newly married pair,
for the issue that should spring from their union.
He said: Him shall no sickness ever touch
and he shall have a long life. ¯ When he said this
Thetis rejoiced greatly, because the words
of Apollo himself who knew about prophesying
seemed to her to be a surety for her child.
And when Achilles was growing up, and
his beauty was the praise of Thessaly,
Thetis used to remember the god’s words.
But one day there came old men with tidings,
and told about the Killing of Achilles at Troy.
And Thetis rent her purple clothes;
she began to take off and to fling away
on the ground her bracelets and her rings.
And in her mourning she minded of old,
and she asked what he was doing, Apollo the wise,
where went the poet who at the feast
spoke so well, the prophet, what was he about,
when they were killing her son in his first youth.
Then the old men answered her that Apollo,
himself in person had come down to Troy,
and with the Trojans he had killed Achilles.
There is no need here for further comment on this stark poem which has admirably exercised the scholarly acumen of a junior Harvard colleague, Ruth Scodel, who praises Cavafy from a legitimate feminist point of view at the expense of Leaf and other male commentators of the last book of the lliad.
But the almost unnoticed evidence of the epigraph of “Apistia”, encourages me to excavate the normally invisible testimony of another epigraph, buried since 1966 in my unreadable doctoral thesis. Briefly, the well-known poem “Walls”, written in 1896 and published in 1897, had in its extremely rare first edition ¯and never since again¯ as an epigraph the exit line of the Prometheus Bound: “þò Ýêäéêá ðÜó÷ù”, which was rendered by Cavafy’s brother, John, as “How I do suffer unjust things”. Here is the poem in John Cavafy’s affectionately padded translation:
No thoughtfulness, no sympathy, no shame
had they (who were they?) who around me came
building huge walls.
And hopeless here sit I.
It harrows heart and brain this evil fate; ¯
outside I have so many things that wait.
But walls were built and heedless I stood by!
And yet I never heard the noise, the cry
of builders at their work; ¯when were they there?¯
Out of the world they shut me unaware.
The subsequent disappearance of this poem’s epigraph is a mystery that has been solved only to my examiners’ apparent satisfaction. Here I can merely submit that Cavafy, in his thirty-third crucial year ¯witness the poem entitled “Days of 1896”¯ wanted to establish a discreet parallel between his own social predicament and that of Prometheus ¯ just as we saw him doing, three years earlier, with Ajax, there again using a famous exit line, but through an elaborate process of distanciation. “Walls”, on the other hand, though never repudiated, was included in Cavafy’s canon only after his death.
Be that as it may, there can he little doubt left that Cavafy had read his Aeschylus as thoroughly as any student of Donald Lucas. But it does not necessarily follow that such a reading leads to any creative competition with Aeschylus.
One may be forgiven for having kept up one’s sleeve decisive evidence that has been available in print since 1968. After all this same evidence had remained hidden in the Cavafy Papers for 35 years after his death. It consists of two poems: one, “Ç Íáõìá÷ßá” or “The Naval Battle”, was written in October 1899; the other, entitled “¼ôáí ï Öýëáî Åßäå ôï Öùò” or “When the Watchman Saw the Light”, was composed three months later, in January 1900. They are of uneven quality, and although Cavafy gave them to his brother for translation into English, he does not seem to have proceeded with the final revision that would have made the second poem honorably publishable.
Since John Cavafy’s translation has not survived, and the only available English version of “The Naval Battle” sounds much worse than the original, I have ventured to salvage it in a jazzed-up transcription, ideally accompanied by Duke Ellington’s “jungle music”, with Bubber Mailey playing the growl trumpet and “Tricky” Sam Nanton his unforgettable “wa-wa” trombone:
THE NAVAL BATTLE
We were totally creamed out there in Salamis.
All we can say now is: wa-wa, wa-wa, wa-wa!
Ours are Ecbatana, Persepolis and Susa ¯
The most gorgeous places in the world.
What business did we have to go to crummy Salamis
schlepping a fleet across and giving battle?
Now back to our Ecbatana, to our Susa.
all the way back to dear Persepolis.
We shall return, but not enjoy them as before.
Otototói, otototói, man! Why was this battle
ever fought, and ordered in the first place?
Otototói, man, otototói! Why did we have
to leave our home, drop everything,
to go and fight that miserable naumachy?
Why does it always happen: as soon as someone has
world-famous Ecbatana and Persepolis for keeps,
as well as Susa, at once he gets up an armada
and goes for a naval engagement with Greeks?
No, sir, there’s nothing we can say now
except otototói, otototói, otototói!
Yes, sir, what else is left for us to say
but wa-wa, wa-wa, wa-wa!
Whether this poem was composed as an oblique reaction to the Boer War is an idle speculation. For Cavafy obviously used Aeschylus’ Persians to write an unimpeachable anti-imperialist poem which he wisely kept in his drawer. Yet the feeling informing it can he perceived in many of his later poems, especially those illustrating his Hellenic view of the Pax Romana, and even more so those referring to the other decisive naval battle of Antiquity, Actium, where one can see Cavafy competing with Shakespeare, if not with Dryden as well.
The metaphoric potential of history or myth for dramatic poetry, gradually rediscovered by Cavafy, is more plainly realized in his version of the Prologue of the Agamemnon, which also illustrates his permanent sympathy for the underdog. Though written in rhyming couplets of iambic hexameters, this indirect dramatic monologue is strong enough to survive almost any translation:
WHEN THE WATCHMAN SAW THE LIGHT
Winter, summer, on the roof of Atreus
sat the Watchman looking out. Now he tells
glad news. Far away he saw a fire flaring up.
And he rejoices: and it’s also the end of his toil.
It is tiresome to sit there night and day
in the heat and the cold, just looking out
for a fire to be lit on the Arachnaion. Now
the longed-for signal has appeared. When happiness
comes at last, it gives you less joy
than what you expected. Yet this is clearly
gained: we are now rid of anxious hopes
and expectations. Many things will happen
in the house of Atreus. Without being clever
one can guess as much, since the Watchman
saw the light. Therefore nothing in excess.
The light is good; and those who come are good;
their words and deeds are also good.
And let us wish that all goes straight. But
Argos can do without the family of Atreus.
No house is there forever. Of course
many people will say many things. Let us
keep our ears open. But we shall not be
taken in by the Indispensable, the Unique,
the Great One. There is always somewhere
someone else, equally indispensable,
and unique, and great, instantly available.
Once again, Cavafy refrained from making the hubristic step of presenting himself in public as a competitor of Aeschylus (and of Robert Browning perhaps). But this poem became a matrix for truly personal compositions like “In a Township of Asia Minor” (published in 1926) or “They Ought to Have Thought” (published in 1930).
So, between 1904, when “Apistia” was published, and 1920, Cavafy ostensibly forgot all about Aeschylus. Then, suddenly, in June 1920, out of the bag came his “Young Men of Sidon (A.D. 400)”, a poem most untypically written and primed within a month.
What exactly happened to Sidon shortly after 400 A.D. is still a mystery to mere Cavafists. However, one of the best, John Sareyannis ¯a botanist by profession and a humanist by predilection¯ has very reasonably suggested that this date is part of Cavafy’s carefully designed stage-effects, and is meant to serve as an ominous ground-bass for the imminent collapse of Rome under the barbarians.
In general, this poem is a model of ironical dramatic composition, full of small, deliberately false notes warning the attentive reader not to take anything said at its face value. E.g. the actor, with his empty patriotic emphasis, ruins the carefully emphatic understatement of Aeschylus epitaph ¯ which in Mackail’s sober prose reads thus:
Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, this monument hides, who died in wheat-bearing Gela; but of his approved valour the Marathonian grove may tell, and the deep-haired Mede who knew it.
Many of these discordant notes are more or less inevitably lost in translation ¯ nevertheless, here is the poem mainly as rendered by John Mavrogordato, who was not only a gentleman and a scholar like Cavafy, but had also some of the poet’s ear for rhythm and sound-patterns:
YOUNG MEN OF SIDON (A.D. 400)
The actor they had brought to entertain them
also recited some epigrams, an exquisite choice.
The banquet-hall opened on to the garden;
and from the flowers came a delicate fragrance
combining with the perfumes of the boys ¯
those five scented youths of Sidonian elegance.
Meleager, Krinagoras, Rianos were read.
But when the actor said,
“Athenian Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, here” ¯
(perhaps with too pronounced significance
intoning the “tried valour”, the “Marathonian grove”),
a lively youngster, a poetry fan,
jumped up at once, and cried:
“Oh, but I don’t like that quatrain at all.
Such phrases always seem somehow faint-hearted.
Give to your work ¯I declare¯ give all your power,
and all your care, and again in the hour
of trial think of your work, or when your life is ebbing.
That is what I expect of you, that is my call.
Not to put altogether out of your head
Tragedy’s bright Rhetoric ¯ need I recall
an Agamemnon or a wondrous Prometheus withal,
that presence of Orestes, of Cassandra in thrall,
those Seven Against Thebes? ¯ and not for your memorial instead
merely to say that in the soldiers’ free-for-all
you too battled with Artaphernes and with Datis.”
Before getting involved in the by now grotesquely inflated discussion of whether Cavafy, in his sixth decade, endorses or not the irreverent rhetoric of the Sidonian youngster, it might be more to the point to assume two premises:
a) On the one hand, that Cavafy expected his more demanding readers to be aware of the two primary sources of Aeschylus’ epitaph: one is the fictional table-talk of a company of pedants with a collective I.Q. equivalent to that of Bouvard and Pécuchet, whereas the other source is the anonymous Vita which definitely does not ascribe the epitaph to Aeschylus; and consequently
b) that Cavafy himself was aware of the modern scholarly doubts concerning the epitaph’s authorship; hence that the perfumed young man’s quarrel with Aeschylus is mere shadow-boxing ¯ a sciamachy in every sense of the word.
As to the question concerning Cavafy’s endorsement of the gist of the “poetry fan’s” tirade, I beg to differ with Seferis’ passionate counter-statement, partly because of an important observation made by Seferis himself: that the bombastic enumeration of Aeschylus’ masterpieces not only omits the Persians (as well as the Supplices) but is also strongly reminiscent in tone of Cavafy’s own rejected poem on Ancient Tragedy (1893). In other words, if pressed, I would say that in this mature poem Cavafy is making fun of his own salad days.
Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury,
My case is nearly at rest. Yet before leaving you to your deliberations, I should like to introduce one more inconclusive piece of evidence. After 1920 and until his death in 1933, Cavafy seems to have had no further use for Aeschylus. However, thanks to our retrospective wisdom, we can get a glimpse of him tinkering since 1919 with a poem that remained unfinished.
I will not inflict upon you another of my crude translations of its most advanced draft ¯ partly because I must not pre-empt the forthcoming publication of Cavafy’s thirty unfinished poems so admirably prepared by our Sicilian colleague Renata Lavagnini, partly also because this cynical poem’s relation to Aeschylus is both close and minimal. What I mean by that, is sufficiently indicated by its title: “Ê’ åðß ðÜóéí ï Êõíáßãåéñïò” ¯ an obvious but elusive quotation, traced eventually to Cavafy’s favorite Greek prose-writer, Lucian.
Not that we had any doubt concerning Kynaigeiros’ identity. The only certain thing every Greek school-boy of my generation knew about Aeschylus was that he had fought at Marathon side by side with his brother Kynaigeiros, who was dutifully hacked to death during that battle. Even in the jingoist days of 1880, Edward Elder, Headmaster of Durham School and collaborator of Dr. Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, could take only so much of patriotic gore:
... According to Herodotus, when the Persians had fled and were endeavouring to escape by sea, Cynaigeirus seized one of their ships to keep it back, but fell with his right hand cut off. The story lost nothing by transmission. The next version related that Cynaigeirus, on the loss of his right hand, grasped the enemy’s vessel with his left; and at length we arrive at the acme of the ludicrous in the account of Justin. Here the hero, having successively lost both his hands, hangs on by his teeth, and even in his mutilated state fights desperately with the last mentioned weapons, “like a rabid wild beast!"
Lucian, of course, had seen through the whole thing. So, in his invaluably satirical Ñçôüñùí äéäÜóêáëïò we have a Professor of Oratory giving an ambitious young intellectual the following practical advice on how to influence people:
When you really must speak... unhesitatingly say “whatever comes to the tip of your unlucky tongue”. Take no pains at all that the first thing, just because it really is the first, shall be said at the appropriate time, and the second after it, and the third after that, but say first whatever occurs to you first; and if it so happens, don’t hesitate to buckle your leggings on your head and your helmet on your leg. But do make haste and keep it going, and only don’t stop talking. If you are speaking of a case of assault or adultery at Athens, mention instances in India or Ecbatana. Cap everything with references to Marathon and Cynegeirus, without which you cannot succeed at all...
I could go on reading from A. M. Hannon’s lusty translation, to illustrate my primary point concerning the antiquity of the Burden of the Past. Except that you probably have started wondering whether Lucian’s young man did not finally make it as the 1984 Gray Lecturer.
|G.P. Savidis, «Cavafy versus Aeschylus» (1984). In ÌéêñÜ êáâáöéêÜ, Á´, ÅñìÞò, 1985 |