Classics  
Greek    1863 - 1933   
Constantine P. Cavafy, also known as Konstantin or Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, or Kavaphes (Greek Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης) was a renowned modern Greek poet who lived in Alexandria and worked as a journalist and civil servant. In his poetry he examined critically some aspects of Christianity, patriotism, and homosexuality, though he ... Read more
Constantine P. Cavafy, also known as Konstantin or Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, or Kavaphes (Greek Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης) was a renowned modern Greek poet who lived in Alexandria and worked as a journalist and civil servant. In his poetry he examined critically some aspects of Christianity, patriotism, and homosexuality, though he ... Read more

Even if you cannot shape your life as you want it,
at least try this
as much as you can; do not debase it
in excessive contact with the world,
in the excessive movements and talk.

Do not debase it by taking it,
dragging it often and exposing it
to the daily folly
of relationships and associations,
until it becomes burdensome as an alien life.

The days of our future stand in front of us
like a row of little lit candles --
golden, warm, and lively little candles.

The days past remain behind us,
a mournful line of extinguished candles;
the ones nearest are still smoking,
cold candles, melted, and bent.

I do not want to look at them; their form saddens me,
and it saddens me to recall their first light.
I look ahead at my lit candles.

I do not want to turn back, lest I see and shudder
at how fast the dark line lengthens,
at how fast the extinguished candles multiply.

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It's clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,
he goes from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he'd still say no. Yet that no-the right no-
drags him down all his life.

In these darkened rooms, where I spend
oppresive days, I pace to and fro
to find the windows. -- When a window
opens, it will be a consolation. --
But the windows cannot be found, or I cannot
find them. And maybe it is best that I do not find them.
Maybe the light will be a new tyranny.
Who knows what new things it will reveal.

Let them not seek to discover who I was
from all that I have done and said.
An obstacle was there that transformed
the deeds and the manner of my life.
An obstacle was there that stopped me
many times when I was about to speak.
Only from my most imperceptible deeds
and my most covert writings--
from these alone will they understand me.
But perhaps it isn't worth exerting
such care and such effort for them to know me.
Later, in the more perfect society,
surely some other person created like me
will appear and act freely.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope the journey is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
you'll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope the voyage is a long one.
may there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbours seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind -
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

Without consideration, without pity, without shame
they have built great and high walls around me.

And now I sit here and despair.
I think of nothing else: this fate gnaws at my mind;

for I had many things to do outside.
Ah why did I not pay attention when they were building the walls.

But I never heard any noise or sound of builders.
Imperceptibly they shut me from the outside world.

Nero was not worried when he heard
the prophecy of the Delphic Oracle.
"Let him fear the seventy three years."
He still had ample time to enjoy himself.
He is thirty. More than sufficient
is the term the god allots him
to prepare for future perils.

Now he will return to Rome slightly tired,
but delightfully tired from this journey,
full of days of enjoyment --
at the theaters, the gardens, the gymnasia...
evenings at cities of Achaia...
Ah the delight of nude bodies, above all...

Thus fared Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly assembles and drills his army,
the old man of seventy three.

On an ebony bed decorated
with coral eagles, sound asleep lies
Nero --- unconscious, quiet, and blissful;
thriving in the vigor of flesh,
and in the splendid power of youth.

But in the alabaster hall that encloses
the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
how restive are his Lares.
The little household gods tremble,
and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
For they heard a horrible clamor,
a deathly clamor ascending the stairs,
iron footsteps rattling the stairs.
And now in a faint the miserable Lares,
burrow in the depth of the shrine,
one tumbles and stumbles upon the other,
one little god falls over the other
for they understand what sort of clamor this is,
they are already feeling the footsteps of the Furies.

One monotonous day is followed
by another monotonous, identical day. The same
things will happen, they will happen again --
the same moments find us and leave us.

A month passes and ushers in another month.
One easily guesses the coming events;
they are the boring ones of yesterday.
And the morrow ends up not resembling a morrow anymore.

The surroundings of home, centers, neighorhood
which I see and where I walk; for years and years.

I have created you in joy and in sorrows:
with so many circumstances, with so many things.

And you have become all feeling, for me.

At the back of the noisy cafe
bent over a table sits an old man;
a newspaper in front of him, without company.

And in the scorn of his miserable old age
he ponders how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strength, and the power of the word, and good looks.

He knows he has aged much; he feels it, he sees it.
And yet the time he was young seems
like yesterday. How short a time, how short a time.

And he ponders how Prudence deceived him;
and how he always trusted her -- what a folly! --
that liar who said: "Tomorrow. There is ample time."

He remembers the impulses he curbed; and how much
joy he sacrificed. Every lost chance
now mocks his senseless wisdom.

...But from so much thinking and remembering
the old man gets dizzy. And falls asleep
bent over the cafe table.

Said Myrtias (a Syrian student
in Alexandria; in the reign of
Augustus Constans and Augustus Constantius;
in part a pagan, and in part a christian);
"Fortified by theory and study,
I shall not fear my passions like a coward.
I shall give my body to sensual delights,
to enjoyments dreamt-of,
to the most daring amorous desires,
to the lustful impulses of my blood, without
any fear, for whenever I want --
and I shall have the will, fortified
as I shall be by theory and study --
at moments of crisis I shall find again
my spirit, as before, ascetic."

Like beautiful bodies of the dead who had not grown old
and they shut them, with tears, in a magnificent mausoleum,
with roses at the head and jasmine at the feet --
this is what desires resemble that have passed
without fulfillment; with none of them having achieved
a night of sensual delight, or a bright morning.

Body, remember not only how much you were loved,
not only the beds on which you lay,
but also those desires which for you
plainly glowed in the eyes,
and trembled in the voice -- and some
chance obstacle made them futile.
Now that all belongs to the past,
it is almost as if you had yielded
to those desires too -- remember,
how they glowed, in the eyes looking at you;
how they trembled in the voice, for you, remember, body.

Valiant are you who fought and fell gloriously;
fearless of those who were everywhere victorious.
Blameless, even if Diaeos and Critolaos were at fault.
When the Greeks want to boast,
"Our nation turns out such men" they will say
of you. And thus marvellous will be your praise. --

Written in Alexandria by an Achaean;
in the seventh year of Ptolemy Lathyrus.

"Alexander son of Philip, and the Greeks except the Lacedaemonians--"

We can very well imagine
that they were utterly indifferent in Sparta
to this inscription. "Except the Lacedaemonians",
but naturally. The Spartans were not
to be led and ordered about
as precious servants. Besides
a panhellenic campaign without
a Spartan king as a leader
would not have appeared very important.
O, of course "except the Lacedaemonians."

This too is a stand. Understandable.

Thus, except the Lacedaemonians at Granicus;
and then at Issus; and in the final
battle, where the formidable army was swept away
that the Persians had massed at Arbela:
which had set out from Arbela for victory, and was swept away.

And out of the remarkable panhellenic campaign,
victorious, brilliant,
celebrated, glorious
as no other had ever been glorified,
the incomparable: we emerged;
a great new Greek world.

We; the Alexandrians, the Antiocheans,
the Seleucians, and the numerous
rest of the Greeks of Egypt and Syria,
and of Media, and Persia, and the many others.
With our extensive territories,
with the varied action of thoughtful adaptations.
And the Common Greek Language
we carried to the heart of Bactria, to the Indians.

As if we were to talk of Lacedaemonians now!

Because gods perceive future things, men what is happening now,
   but wise men perceive approaching things.

     Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, VIII, 7.


Men know what is happening now.
The gods know the things of the future,
the full and sole possessors of all lights.
Of the future things, wise men perceive
approaching things. Their hearing

is sometimes, during serious studies,
disturbed. The mystical clamor
of approaching events reaches them.
And they heed it with reverence. While outside
on the street, the peoples hear nothing at all.Because gods perceive future things, men what is happening now,
   but wise men perceive approaching things.

     Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, VIII, 7.


Men know what is happening now.
The gods know the things of the future,
the full and sole possessors of all lights.
Of the future things, wise men perceive
approaching things. Their hearing

is sometimes, during serious studies,
disturbed. The mystical clamor
of approaching events reaches them.
And they heed it with reverence. While outside
on the street, the peoples hear nothing at all.

Let me stop here. Let me, too, look at nature awhile.
The brilliant blue of the morning sea, of the cloudless sky,
the yellow shore; all lovely,
all bathed in light.

Let me stand here. And let me pretend I see all this
(I really did see it for a minute when I first stopped)
and not my usual day-dreams here too,
my memories, those images of sensual pleasure.


trans. by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

You said: "I'll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.

How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I've spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally."
You won't find a new country, won't find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You'll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You'll always end up in this city. Don't hope for things elsewhere:
there's no ship for you, there's no road.
Now that you've wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you've destroyed it everywhere in the world.

 
To comment on this poem, please log in or create a free account
Log in or register to comment