Archive for C. P. Cavafy

The First Step

Posted in Greece, Painting, Poetry with tags , on September 22, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


The young poet Eumenes complained
to Theocritus one day:
‘Two years have passed since I began to write,
and all I’ve composed is just one idyll.
It is my only completed work.
Alas, it’s high, so I see,
the stairway of Poetry is so very high;
and from the first step, where I stand,
miserable me, I’ll never climb higher. ‘
Theocritus said: ‘These words
are blasphemous and unbecoming.
Even though you stand on the first step,
you still ought to be proud and happy.
To have come so far is no small matter;
to have done so much is great glory.
For even this first step is still
by far above the common people.
In order to set foot upon this step,
you must be in your own right
a citizen in the city of ideas.
It is both difficult and rare
to be made a citizen of that city.
In its agora you come across Lawgivers
that cannot be deceived by any opportunist.
To have come so far is no small matter;
to have done so much is great glory.’

Text: C. P. Cavafy, The Collected Poems, translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou. Oxford University Press, 2007

Original Greek poem

Image: William Blake, Jacob’s Dream, c. 1805, The British Museum

Julian at the Mysteries

Posted in Greece, Poetry with tags , on September 12, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


But when he found himself in darkness,
in the earth’s dreadful depths,
accompanied by unholy Greeks,
and bodiless figures appeared before him
with haloes and bright lights,
the young Julian momentarily lost his nerve:
an impulse from his pious years came back
and he crossed himself.
The Figures vanished at once;
the haloes faded away, the lights went out.
The Greeks exchanged glances.
The young man said: “Did you see the miracle?
Dear companions, I’m frightened.
I’m frightened, friends. I want to leave.
Didn’t you see how the demons vanished
the second they saw me make
the holy sign of the cross?”
The Greeks chuckled scornfully:
“Shame on you, shame, to talk that way
to us sophists and philosophers!
If you want to say things like that,
say them to the Bishop of Nicomedia
and his priests.
The greatest gods of our glorious Greece
appeared before you.
And if they left, don’t think for a minute
that they were frightened by a gesture.
It was just that when they saw you
making that vile, that crude sign,
their noble nature was disgusted
and they left you in contempt.”
This is what they said to him,
and the fool recovered from
his holy, blessed fear, convinced
by the unholy words of the Greeks.

C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992
Read the original Greek here

Alexandrian Kings

Posted in Greece, Poetry with tags , , , on September 2, 2016 by Dylan Thomas Hayden


The Alexandrians came out in droves
to have a look at Cleopatra’s children:
Caesarion, and also his little brothers,
Alexander and Ptolemy, who for the first
time were being taken to the Gymnasium,
that they might proclaim them kings
before the brilliant ranks of soldiers.

Alexander: they declared him king
of Armenia, of Media, of the Parthians.
Ptolemy: they declared him king
of Cilicia, of Syria, of Phoenicia.
Caesarion was standing well in front,
attired in rose-colored silk,
on his chest a garland of hyacinths,
his belt a double row of sapphires and amethysts,
his shoes laced up with white
ribbons embroidered with pink-skinned pearls.
Him they declared greater than the boys:
him they declared King of Kings.

The Alexandrians were certainly aware
that these were merely words, a bit of theatre.

But the day was warm and poetic, the sky pale blue,
the Alexandrian Gymnasium
a triumphant artistic achievement,
the courtiers’ elegance exceptional,
Caesarion all grace and beauty
(Cleopatra’s son, of Lagid blood):
and the Alexandrians rushed to the festival,
filled with excitement, and shouted acclaim
in Greek, and in Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
enchanted by the lovely spectacle—
though of course they knew what they were worth,
what empty words these kingdoms were.

In his poem the great C. P. Cavafy turns a characteristically ironic eye upon the Donations of Alexandria of 34 BC, in which the children of Cleopatra were invested with many royal and divine titles. Pride of place at this event was given to Caesarion, Cleopatra’s eldest child and alleged heir of Julius Caesar. Caesarion had already been declared pharaoh and co-ruler of Egypt at the age of three, on this day in 44 BC. He and his brothers never inherited the kingdoms given them and their true fates are unknown, the subject of many legends. Interestingly, Cavafy does not mention their sister, Cleopatra Selene II, who survived the intrigues that birthed the Roman Empire and became Queen Consort of Mauretania. Her children were the last known issue of the three-centuries-old House of Ptolemy.
Image: Isis, Serapis and their child Harpocrates; marble relief; c. 125 BC; found at Henchir el-Attermine, Tunisia; Musée du Louvre
Text: C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013
Read the poem in Greek
Hear the poem in Greek


Posted in Greece, Poetry with tags , , on December 12, 2014 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

He, who on the four-drachma piece
seems to have a smile on his face,
on his beautiful, refined face,
he is Orophernes, son of Ariarthes.

A child, they chased him out of Cappadocia,
from the great ancestral palace,
and sent him away to grow up
in Ionia, to be forgotten among foreigners.

Ah, the exquisite nights of Ionia
when fearlessly, and completely as a Greek,
he came to know pleasure utterly.
In his heart, an Asiatic still:
but in his manners and in his speech a Greek,
bedecked with turquoise, yet Greek attired,
his body scented with perfume of jasmine;
and of Ionia’s beautiful young men
the most beautiful was he, the most ideal.

Later on, when the Syrians came
to Cappadocia, and had made him king,
he threw himself completely into his reign,
that he might enjoy some novel pleasure each new day,
that he might horde the gold and silver, avaricious,
that over all of this he might exult, and gloat
to see the heaped-up riches glittering.
As for cares of state, administration–
he didn’t know what was going on around him.

The Cappadocians quickly threw him out.
And so to Syria he fled, to the palace of
Demetrius, to entertain himself and loll about.

Still, one day some unaccustomed thoughts
broke in on his total idleness:
he remembered that through his mother, Antiochis,
and through that ancient lady, Stratonice,
he too descended from the Syrian crown,
he too was very nearly a Seleucid.
For a while he emerged from his lechery and drink,
and ineptly, in a kind of daze,
cast around for something he might plot,
something he might do, something to plan,
and failed miserably and came to nothing.

His death must have been recorded somewhere and then lost.
Or maybe history passed it by,
and very rightly didn’t deign
to notice such a trivial thing.

He, who on the four-drachma piece
left the charm of his lovely youth,
a glimmer of his poetic beauty,
a sensitive memento of an Ionian boy,
he is Orophernes, son of Ariarthes.

–trans. Daniel Mendelsohn

The Glory of the Ptolemies

Posted in Greece, Poetry with tags , on December 11, 2014 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

I’m Lagides, king, absolute master
(through my power and wealth) of sensual pleasure.
There’s no Macedonian, no barbarian, equal to me
or even approaching me. The son of Selefkos
is really a joke with his cheap lechery.
But if you’re looking for other things, note this too:
my city’s the greatest preceptor, queen of the Greek world,
genius of all knowledge, of every art.

–trans. Keeley and Sherrard

Salome, 1896

Posted in Poetry with tags , on December 1, 2014 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

Upon a golden charger Salome bears
     the head of John the Baptist
          to the young Greek sophist
who recoils from her love, indifferent

The young man quips, “Salome, your own
     head is what I wanted them to bring me.”
          This is what he says, jokingly.
And her slave came running on the morrow

holding aloft the head of the Beloved,
     its tresses blond, upon a golden plate.
     But all his eagerness of yesterday
the sophist had forgotten as he studied.

He sees the dripping blood and is disgusted.
     He orders this bloodied thing to
     be taken from him, and he continues
his reading of the dialogues of Plato.

–trans. Daniel Mendelsohn

The Regiment of Pleasure

Posted in Philosophy, Poetry with tags on July 18, 2014 by Dylan Thomas Hayden

Do not speak of guilt, do not speak of responsibility. When the Regiment of Pleasure passes by, with music and flags; when the senses quiver and tremble, whoever stands apart is foolish and impertinent: whoever does not rush to join the good crusade, to the conquest of pleasures and of passions.

All the laws of morals — as ill-considered as they are ill-constructed — are naught and cannot stand fast even for a moment, when the Regiment of Pleasure passes by accompanied by music and by flags.

Do not let a single shadowy virtue stop you. Do not believe that a single commitment binds you. Your duty is to give in, give in always to your longings, which are the most perfect creations of perfect gods. Your duty is to fall in, a faithful soldier, with simplicity of heart, when the Regiment of Pleasure passes by accompanied by music and by flags.

Do not shut yourself inside your house and deceive yourself with theories of justice, with the superstitions about reward held by ill-made societies. Do not say, My toil is worth so much, and so much I’m due to enjoy. Since life is an inheritance and you had nothing to do to earn it, so an inheritance, too, must Pleasure necessarily be. Do not shut yourself inside your house; but keep the window open, completely open, so that you might hear the first sounds of the passing of the soldiers, when there arrives the Regiment of Pleasure accompanied by music and by flags.

Do no be deceived by the blasphemers who tell you that this service is risky and toilsome. Service to Pleasure is a constant joy. It exhausts you, but it exhausts you with heavenly intoxications. And when at last you fall down in the street, even then your fate is to be envied. When your funeral procession passes by, the Shapes that your longings fashioned will cast tulips and white roses on your coffin, and onto their shoulders the youthful Gods of Olympus will lift you, and they will entomb you in the Cemetery of the Ideal where the mausoleums of poetry gleam white.