my old Cavafy

my old Cavafy

Sad and melancholic after returning from Greece, I found my old Cavafy book and I am re-visiting it!

My brother Theo introduced me to Constantine Cavafy years ago – through his poem Ithaka (which I posted on this blog on August 19, 2011). Now as I reread poems I discover new beauty in his words. The poem which has struck me the most during this re-reading has been God Abandons Antony or God Forsakes Antony, published in 1911. The story is of a defeated Marc Anthony in Alexandria (which centuries later would be home to Cavafy). After being moved by its elegance I remarked on the importance of the story of Marc Anthony and Cleopatra. Of our fascination with that love story, with ancient Egypt, with the Roman Empire, and so on, so I started thinking of my favorite connections to this story…

The first one that came to mind where the lyrics from one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs: Blinded by Love, when Mick Jagger sings:

The queen of the Nile

She laid on her throne

And she was drifting downstream

On a barge that was burnished with gold

Royal purple the sails

So sweetly perfumed

And poor Mark Antony’s

Senses were drowned

And his future was doomed

He was blinded by love

Of course Cavafy’s poem is born from Plutarch’s telling of the story. Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen used the poem for one of his songs, but changed Alexandria, the city, to Alexandra, a woman. Of course there is Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra born from a translation of Plutarch, there is Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and so on and so forth, but for now I leave you with Cavafy in his own translation:

If unexpectedly, in middle night,

an unseen company be heard to pass,

with music and with voices exquisite, —

turn not away and uselessly lament

your fortune that is giving in, your work

that came to nothing, the projects of your life

that proved illusory from first to last.

As one prepared long since, as fits the brave,

bid now farewell to the departing city,

farewell to the Alexandria you love.

And above all, do not deceive yourself:

say not that your impression was a dream,

that, it may be, your hearing played you false:

to futile hopes like these never descend.

As one prepared long since, as fits the brave,

as most fits you who gained so great a city,

approach the open window steadily,

and with emotion, but without the plaints

and supplications of the timorous,

listen — knowing it to be your last delight —

listen to the elysian sounds, the exquisite

instruments of the mystic company;

and bid farewell to the city you are losing,

farewell to the Alexandria you love.

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