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The Silence of Hermippos: Greece in the Poetry of Cavafy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2016

Diskin Clay*
The Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, Maryland


Hellene: a. An ancient Greek, of genuine Grecian race.

b. A subject of the modern kingdom of Greece or Hellas. OED.

1. On 29 April 1933 Cavafy died in Alexandria, the city in which he was born. There is some reason for satisfaction in this. Visitors to his apartment on the second floor of 10 Rue Lepsius knew how self-contained Cavafy’s small and familiar world in Alexandria was. Rue Lepsius was home for the last twenty-six years of Cavafy’s life: ‘Below, the brothel caters for the flesh. And there is the church [St. Savvas’s] which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die.’ The first floor of 10 Rue Lepsius never catered to Cavafy’s flesh, but the church forgave his sins, and he died in the hospital. He could have died in an hospital in Athens where he had gone the year before for treatment of cancer of the throat. He stayed there for a time at the Hôtel Cosmopolite, and from Kifissiá he found the sight of Hymettos and the mountains to the north ‘boring’. He returned home to die, ‘an Alexandrian of the Alexandrians’, an epitaph he very nearly composed for himself.

Research Article
Copyright © The Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, University of Birmingham 1997

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1. Quoted by Liddell, Robert in Cavafy: A Critical Biography (London, 1974), p. 180.Google Scholar

2. Liddell, Cavafy, p. 206, seems to take his epitaph—’He was an Alexandrian of the Alexandrians’—from the end of Cavafy’s epitaph ‘For Ammonis, Who Died at 29, in 610’ (1917).

3. Recorded by Timos Melanos in (Alexandria, 1935), p.6; cf. Melanos, I (Alexandria, 1943), pp. 221 and 57.

4. Quoted by Liddell, Cavafy, p. 103, from Cavafy’s English journal, in Kavafis, ed. Papbutsakis, G. A. (Athens, 1963), p. 263.Google Scholar

5. The most violent collision of European dream and the reality of revolutionary and modern Greece came in July 1826, when the great patriot and poet, Andreas Calvos, landed in Nauplion, an episode well rendered by Sherrard, Philip in ‘Andreas Kalvos and the Eighteenth-Century Ethos’, BMGS, I (1975), 1778.Google Scholar

6. Cf. Liddell, , Cavafy, p. 104, and Yourcenar, Marguerite, Présentation critique de Constantin Cavafy (Paris, 1958), p. 11.Google Scholar

7. ‘The Poetry of Cavafy’, C. P., reprinted in Pharos and Pharillon (Richmond, Surrey, 1923), p. 75.Google Scholar

8. Recorded by Lechonitis, G., (Alexandria, 1942), p. 22.Google Scholar

9. Seferis, G., 3rd ed., I (Athens, 1974), p. 346.Google Scholar

10. Forster, E. M., Pharos and Pharillon, pp. 778.Google Scholar

11. Bowra, C.M., ‘Consumine Cavafy and the Greek Past’, in The Creative Experiment (London, 1967), p. 32.Google Scholar

12. Forster, E. M., Pharos and Pharillon, p. 78.Google Scholar

13. I quote the poetry of Cavafy in the new translation of Keeley, E. and Sherrard, P., C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton, 1975)Google Scholar, except for those of die anekdota which do not appear in this collection. For these I offer my own translations.

14. —in Kazantzakis’ characterization of the poet, as he saw him in a visit of February 1927, 2nd ed. (Athens, 1965), p. 79.

15. Cavafy, C. P., 1883-1923, ed. Savidis, G. (Athens, 1968), p. 23.Google Scholar

16. The phrase comes from ‘In the Street’ (1916). There are many variations on this expression in Cavafy’s later poetry and, taken together, they show Cavafy as once again the possessor of an inner world he hesitated either to reveal or suppress, and an outsider to the normal world. Consider ‘Hidden Things’ (1908) and the poet’s masks in ‘Theatre of Sidon (A.D. 400)’ (1923), ‘In the Street’ (1926), ‘Passing Through’ (1917), ‘The Window of the Tobacco Shop’ (1917), ‘Their Beginning’ (1921), and ‘A Young Poet in his Twenty-Fourth Year’ (1928).

17. ‘Tomb of Iasis’(1917)and ‘Of the Jews A.D. 50’(1919)reveal how Keeley can stress ‘the hedonistic bias’ of Hellenism, in his essay on ‘Cavafy’s Hellenism’, Review of National Literatures, V (1974), 67 Google Scholar. But the austerity and lack of feeling of the Hellenes in the texts I discuss briefly in what follows suggests that this hedonistic bias disappears from the foreground when Cavafy is bent on contrasting barbarian feeling and Greek austerity.

18. p. 87. Savidis reproduces the strange text that inspired this strange poem on p. 226.

19. ‘The “New” Poems of Cavafy’, in Modem Greek Writers, eds. Keeley, E. and Bien, P. (Princeton, 1972), p. 143.Google Scholar

20. Liddell, Cavafy, p. 195.

21. Seferis, I, p. 351, captures the importance of what Cavafy leaves unsaid in an historical poem like ‘Alexander Jannaios and Alexandra’ (1929) in his reply to Peter Vlastos’ caricature of Cavafy’s poems as ‘statue bases without their statue’:

22. —quoted by Savidis at the head of his introduction to the Anekdota. ‘Returning to Greece’ is printed on p. 159 of the Anekdota, Savidis’ textual notes pp. 242-44. Savidis takes the MS. entry to be a variant of line 7, although it appears p. 243.

23. From Thucydides’ epitaph for Euripides, Greek Anthology, VII, 45.

24. I, p. 354.

25. The student of Cavafy will find a revealing ‘map’ of Cavafy’s Hellenism in the table ‘The Ancient World of Hellenism. Principal Settings’ which Keeley, E. provides in his Cavafy’s Alexandria (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1976)Google Scholar. This table gives a chronology; there is also an outline map of’The Ancient World of Hellenism’.

26. p. 79.

27. Quoted by Roditi, E. in his ‘Cavafis and the Permanence of Greek History’, Poetry, LXXXI (1953), 390.Google Scholar

28. This attack was published, in English, in the Alexandrian periodical Rivista Quindidnale, III (1891), 60-1, and was reprinted by Fraser, P. M. in Modem Language Review, LVIII (1963), 668.Google Scholar

29. Liddell, Cavafy, pp. 190-1.

30. Byron in a poem entered into his Journal in Cephalonia, Byron: Letters and Diaries, ed. Quennell, P., II (London, 1967), p. 739 Google Scholar. The phrase ‘I must do all I can for the Ancients’ comes from his letter to Kinnaird, Douglas, 23 October 1823, Letters and Diaries II, p. 753 Google Scholar. By contrast to Cavafy’s conception of the continuing life of Greece, Palamas’ prophetic vision of the regrowth of the wings of Greece’s ancient glory would seem to answer better to the symbolism of die Order of the Phoenix:

Palamas, Kostis, III (Athens, 1960), p. 400.Google Scholar

31. Grote, G., A History of Greece, II (London, 1884), p. 214.Google Scholar

32. ed. Savidis, G., VII (1954), 11 Google Scholar. Cavafy gave a notion of what it was like to be cut off from diis ‘city’ in two of the Anekdota, ‘Epitaph’ (1893) and ‘Poseidonians’ (1906).

The close of this essay is the place to recognize its beginnings: a National Endowment for the Humanities junior fellowship that enabled me to study modern Greek literature in 1974 and 1975; Professor Harry Levy, who invited me to talk on Cavafy at the joint meetings of the American Philological Association and the Modern Greek Studies Association in Christmas of 1975 and thereby forced me to write on a modern Greek author; Peter Bien whose helped me transform a lecture into an essay; and Edmund Keeley whose Cavafy’s Alexandria gave me my orientation on Cavafy’s Greece.

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