An extraordinary literary event: the simultaneous publication of a brilliant and vivid new rendering of C. P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems and the first-ever English translation of the poet’s thirty Unfinished Poems, both featuring the fullest literary commentaries available in English—by the acclaimed critic, scholar, and award-winning author of The Lost.
No modern poet brought so vividly to life the history and culture of Mediterranean antiquity; no writer dared break, with such taut energy, the early-twentieth-century taboos surrounding homoerotic desire; no poet before or since has so gracefully melded elegy and irony as the Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863–1933). Now, after more than a decade of work and study, and with the cooperation of the Cavafy Archive in Athens, Daniel Mendelsohn—a classics scholar who alone among Cavafy’s translators shares the poet’s deep intimacy with the ancient world—is uniquely positioned to give readers full access to Cavafy’s genius. And we hear for the first time the remarkable music of his poetry: the sensuous rhymes, rich assonances, and strong rhythms of the original Greek that have eluded previous translators.
The more than 250 works collected in this volume, comprising all of the Published, Repudiated, and Unpublished poems, cover the vast sweep of Hellenic civilization, from the Trojan War through Cavafy’s own lifetime. Powerfully moving, searching and wise, whether advising Odysseus as he returns home to Ithaca or portraying a doomed Marc Antony on the eve of his death, Cavafy’s poetry brilliantly makes the historical personal—and vice versa. He brings to his profound exploration of longing and loneliness, fate and loss, memory and identity the historian’s assessing eye as well as the poet’s compassionate heart.
With its in-depth introduction and a helpful commentary that situates each work in a rich historical, literary, and biographical context, this revelatory new translation, together with The Unfinished Poems, is a cause for celebration—the definitive presentation of Cavafy in English.
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The CityYou said: “I'll go to some other land, I'll go to some other sea.There's bound to be another city that's better by far.My every effort has been ill-fated from the start;my heart-like something dead-lies buried away;How long will my mind endure this slow decay?Wherever I look, wherever I cast my eyes,I see all round me the black rubble of my lifewhere I've spent so many ruined and wasted years.”You'll find no new places, you won't find other shores.The city will follow you. The streets in which you pacewill be the same, you'll haunt the same familiar places,and inside those same houses you'll grow old.You'll always end up in this city. Don't bother to hopefor a ship, a route, to take you somewhere else; they don't exist.Just as you've destroyed your life, here in thissmall corner, so you've wasted it through all the world.[1894; 1910] IthacaAs you set out on the way to Ithacahope that the road is a long one,filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,you won't find such things on your wayso long as your thoughts remain lofty, and a choiceemotion touches your spirit and your body.The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,savage Poseidon; you won't encounter themunless you stow them away inside your soul,unless your soul sets them up before you.Hope that the road is a long one.Many may the summer mornings bewhen-with what pleasure, with what joy-you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;may you stop at Phoenician trading postsand there acquire the finest wares:mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,and heady perfumes of every kind:as many heady perfumes as you can.Many Egyptian cities may you visitthat you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.Always in your mind keep Ithaca.To arrive there is your destiny.But do not hurry your trip in any way.Better that it last for many years;that you drop anchor at the island an old man,rich with all you've gotten on the way,not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey;without her you wouldn't have set upon the road.But now she has nothing left to give you.And if you find her poor, Ithaca didn't deceive you.As wise as you will have become, with so much experience,you will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.[1910; 1911] Hidden (1908)From all I did and from all I saidthey shouldn't try to find out who I was.An obstacle was there and it distortedmy actions and the way I lived my life.An obstacle was there and it stopped meon many occasions when I was going to speak.The most unnoticed of my actionsand the most covert of all my writings:from these alone will they come to know me.But perhaps it's not worth squanderingso much care and trouble on puzzling me out.Afterwards-in some more perfect society-someone else who's fashioned like mewill surely appear and be free to do as he pleases.Review:
“Cavafy’s distinctive tone–wistfully elegiac but resolutely dry-eyed–has captivated English-language poets from W.H. Auden to James Merrill to Louise Glück. Auden maintained that Cavafy’s tone seemed always to ‘survive translation,’ and Daniel Mendelsohn’ s new translations render that tone more pointedly than ever before. Together with The Unfinished Poems, this Collected Poems not only brings us closer to one of the great poets of the 20th century; it also reinvigorates our relationship to the English language. . . . As Mendelsohn argues in his introduction to the poems, any division between the erotic and historical poems is facile. Whether Cavafy is describing an ancient political intrigue or an erotic encounter that occurred last week, his topic is the passage of time. . . . Mendelsohn has focused his attention on the exquisite care Cavafy took with diction, syntax, meter and rhyme. It is only through attention to these minute aspects of poetic language that tone is produced. And Mendelsohn is assiduously attentive. . . . Cavafy mingled high and low diction, [and] Mendelsohn’ s translations shift similarly between the lofty and the mundane . . . This shift lets us hear something crucial about Cavafy’s tone (a directness that is never not elegant), but it also lets Mendelsohn’s translation exist fully as an English poem. Mendelsohn is a classicist, essayist and memoirist [and his] translations of Cavafy’ s poems come trailing commentaries in which an immense amount of learning is gracefully and usefully borne. But Mendelsohn thinks like a poet, which is to say he inhabits the meaning of language through its movement. . . . His translation of the famous concluding lines of ‘The God Abandons Antony’ embodies the fortitude the poem recommends. As a result the poem does not pronounce but arrives at is wisdom, making it happen to us. It is an event on the page. It’s easy to translate what a poem says; to concoct a verbal mechanism that captures a poem’s movement, its manner of saying, requires a combination of skills that very few possess. Like Richard Howard’s Baudelaire or Robert Pinsky’s Dante, Mendelsohn’s Cavafy is itself a work of art.”
–James Longenbach, The New York Times Book Review
“Daniel Mendelsohn has translated all of Cavafy’s poems, including the thirty ‘unfinished’ poems never before rendered in English. The results are extraordinary, and a whole galaxy orbits them. . . .Until his death in 1933, Cavafy would compile one of the great bodies of poetry in any literature. . . . A connoisseur of history’s castaways, his work draws from two intensely private sources: the histories of the Hellenic world, which he read in the evenings, and nights of sex, rigged for retrospective poignancy, that ensued. . . . If a great poet hadn’t been sneaking around, an entire world of cabarets and coffee shops, as vivid in its way as Dickens’s London, might have passed without notice. . . . Cavafy’ s Greek is without perfect English equivalent . . . The fact that he survives translation relatively unscathed should not imply that he has survived all translations equally intact. . . . What [readers] heard in Keeley and Sherrard was Cavafy tuned to unobtrusive English idiom . . . But Keeley and Sherrard had given up on Cavafy’s rhyme . . . and had generally eliminated the formal aspects that contribute to Cavafy’s over-all texture, part chamois and part steel wool. And yet some of Cavafy’s best poems crucially depend on these formal signatures . . . To me Cavafy’s rhythm [in the poem ‘In Despair’ ] feels more like masonry, phrase after phrase laid down and pounded level with a mallet. Not one of these effects is apparent in Keeley and Sherrard’s low-wattage version of the [poem] that Mendelsohn so ably translates. . . . Mendelsohn suggests that Cavafy’s method [of self-publishing] allowed him to regard ‘every poem as a work in progress,’ which is undoubtedly right.”
–Dan Chiasson, The New Yorker
“This eloquent critic has entered deeply into Cavafy’s world of stoic longing and elusive memory, intense desire and cool, appraising intellection. . . . Why do we need another [Cavafy translation]? Mendelsohn’s answer is ‘to restore the balance,’ by which he means, to restore Cavafy’s particularity. Previous translations have often aimed to make his work accessible by drawing out what appears universal in it; Mendelsohn wants to deepen and complicate–to make Cavafy less our contemporary and more his own, often enigmatic Alexandrian self. . . . Mendelsohn is at his best as a translator of poems [about desire], rescuing them from the coyness that dogged earlier versions, with a voice as tender and forthright as Cavafy’s own. (This is not an easy task. Some of Cavafy’s favorite words have no good English equivalent.) Rightly, though, Mendelsohn wants his readers to look beyond Cavafy as gay icon avant la lettre and comprehend his whole artistic project, which ‘holds the historical and the erotic in a single embrace.’ . . . Mendelsohn’s excellent introduction to the Collected Poems . . . and his exhaustive notes, parse the most difficult poems for those of us who can’t tell our Lagids from our Seleucids . . . Mendelsohn wants nothing less than to offer, ‘as much as possible, a Cavafy who looks, feels, and sounds in English the way he looks, feels, and sounds in Greek,’ which means translating meter as well as meaning . . . Mendelsohn also appreciates Cavafy’s subtle use, in almost every poem, of Greek’s different registers–the formal katharevousa, or purified tongue, invented by Enlightenment scholars, and the colloquial demotic–and does his best to find English equivalents: Latinate words and formal syntax versus Anglo-Saxon phrases. . . . His version of the short poem ‘Voices,’ is the best I’ve read . . . [This is] the Cavafy of a brilliant critic who has a true and deep affinity for the poet–and who has succeeded in giving him to us whole for the first time.”
–Maria Margaronis, The Nation
“Thrilling . . . The explanatory essays [Mendelsohn] has attached to almost every poem can contain every bit as much passion and humanity as the poet’s own work. Mendelsohn is such a felicitous interpreter of Cavafy because the poet himself was a kind of scholar: complex allusions to distant figures and events at the margins of Mediterranean history are as essential to his art as his evocations of ardent erotic encounters. And our distance from these places, peoples, and ages makes Cavafy’s achievement all the more impressive: he brings a ‘Political Reformer’ in a Greek colony in 200 B.C., a hero of the Trojan wars, or a young man bathing at Alexandria in 1908 into a palpable and immediate presence.”
–Benjamin Moser, Harper’s Magazine
“If Cavafy has been well-served by his Anglophone admirers (E. M. Forster and W. H. Auden notable among them, the classics scholar and bestselling memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn has now outstripped them all. His two-volume edition of the Cavafy canon, Collected Poems and The Unfinished Poems, scrupulously translated, copiously annotated, and 10 years in the making, not only gives us Cavafy in full but a Cavafy who sounds so at home in our own lingua franca that you’d scarcely suspect he might be Greek to us. . . . How is it that [Cavafy’s] verse manages to impart such a haunting resonance and palpable presence so far removed from its roots? Certainly not by aspiring to epic grandeur or by abounding in lyric airs and graces: On every page he's the epitome of fastidious understatement and austere brevity, given almost exclusively to ruminating on the ghostly vestiges of Hellenic and Byzantine antiquity with pithy stoicism, and chronicling his fleeting homoerotic encounters in the Alexandrian demimonde with unsanitized candor.”
–David Barber, Boston Sunday Globe
“A triumph . . . These books mark an important moment in publishing. Collected Poems presents, in careful, professional translations, virtually all the known poetry of Cavafy, one of the 20th century’s best-known poets. The translator, Daniel Mendelsohn, an accomplished critic and classicist, is alive to the nuances of Greek. Best of all, he furnishes us with full, excellent notes to the life of Cavafy and to the poems. The Unfinished Poems adds to this by presenting, for the first time, translations of 30 Cavafy poems left in various states of imperfection . . . Mendelsohn does the same solid job with these, and his notes are as helpful and loving. Why the excitement? First of all, there’s Cavafy’s reputation, never higher than now, and likely to rise even higher, [with] the unfinished poems . . . His muted, direct poetry tends to work not through metaphor or simile, but through characters and situations. His effects in Greek are so subtle that translations usually miss them and fall into prose. Of his two favorite realms, one is Greek/Byzantine history–especially moments narrated by little-known greats, peripheral kings, philosophers, generals, and onlookers. . . . These poems teach us much about history, politics, and the foolishness of ever thinking you’ve got it made. . . . Cavafy’s triumph is that his love poems can evoke the same enduring, compelling themes as his history poems: loneliness and loss, the nature of nobility, the ravages of time, the power of pleasure, and the fleeting nature of happiness. . . . The unfinished, exquisite poem ‘The Photograph’ [and] several of the [other] unfinished poems . . . will strengthen Cavafy’s already high repute, and join his best-known poems. [Mendelsoh...
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