Konstantin Kavafis / Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης: “I went into the brilliant night and drank strong wine, the way the Champions of Pleasure drink.”Posted: July 1, 2012
Konstantin Kavafis (Constantine Cavafy)
With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they’ve built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can’t think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind
– because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they’ve closed me off from the outside world.
In these dark rooms where I live out empty days,
I wander round and round
trying to find the windows.
It will be a great relief when a window opens.
But the windows aren’t there to be found
– or at least I can’t find them. And perhaps
it’s better if I don’t find them.
Perhaps the light will prove another tyranny.
Who knows what new things it will expose?
I didn’t restrain myself. I gave in completely and went,
went to those pleasures that were half real,
half wrought by my own mind,
went into the brilliant night
and drank strong wine,
the way the champions of pleasure drink.
Comes to rest
It must have been one o’clock at night
or half past one.
A corner in a tavern,
behind the wooden partition:
except for the two of us the place completely empty.
A lamp barely lit gave it light.
The waiter was sleeping by the door.
No one could see us.
But anyway, we were already so worked up
we’d become incapable of caution.
Our clothes half opened – we weren’t wearing much:
it was a beautiful hot July.
Delight of flesh between
quick baring of flesh – a vision
that has crossed twenty-six years
and now comes to rest in this poetry.
The afternoon sun
This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, businessmen, companies.
This room, how familiar it is.
The couch was here, near the door,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right – no, opposite – a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window the bed
where we made love so many times.
They must be still around somewhere, those old things.
Beside the window the bed;
the afternoon sun used to touch half of it.
…One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only…And then
– that week became forever.
Before Time altered them
They were full of sadness at their parting.
They hadn’t wanted it: circumstances made it necessary.
The need to earn a living forced one of them
to go far away – New York or Canada.
The love they felt wasn’t, of course, what it had once been;
the attraction between them had gradually diminished,
the attraction had diminished a great deal.
But to be separated, that wasn’t what they wanted.
It was circumstances. Or maybe Fate
appeared as an artist and decided to part them now,
before their feeling died out completely, before Time altered them:
the one seeming to remain for the other always what he was,
the good-looking young man of twenty-four.
Translations from Greek into English © 1975 Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
Constantine Cavafy (Konstantin Kavafis), 1863-1933,
lived and died in the port city of Alexandria, Egypt.
His father had worked in Manchester, England, founding
an import-export firm for Egyptian cotton to the
textile industry. Between the ages of 9 and 16 Constantine
was educated in England – Victorian-era England – and
these years became important in the shaping of his poetic
sensibility (which would only emerge around the age of 40.)
Though he was fluent in English, when he began to write poetry
in earnest it was to be in his native Greek.
Cavafy never published any poems in his lifetime, rather he
had them printed privately then distributed them
- pamphlet-style – to friends and acquaintances.
His social circle was small and by all accounts he was not ashamed
of his homosexuality – but he did feel much guilt over
“auto-eroticism” – what we now call masturbation.
Cavafy’s early poems “Walls” and “The Windows” might
be read as the mental anxieties of a “closeted” homosexual -
yet there was no such thing in the 19th century as someone
who was “Out” anyway.
The poem “I went”, from 1905, seems to be a break-through of sorts,
Cavafy indicating – at least in the Truth that was his much-cherished
Art – Poetry – that he’s ready to write openly of his love for men.
The poems he wrote when he was in his 50s, such as “Comes to rest”,
“The afternoon sun” and “Before Time altered them”, show a mature
poet describing the universal beauty and sadness of Love – and he
does it describing sex, passion and loss between two men.