Although his work was little-known during his life, Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) has come to be regarded as one of the greatest Greek poets of the twentieth century. Best known in the English-speaking world for “Ithaca” and “Waiting for the Barbarians,” his work treats Greek history and identity, love, and the indignities of life with often brutal ironic candour.
HE ASKED ABOUT THE QUALITY –
He left the office where he’d been hired
in a minor and ill-paid position
(about eight pounds a month with benefits)
once the arid work had finished,
having spent the whole afternoon hunched over.
He left at seven, and walked slowly,
and loitered in the road. Beautiful
and interesting: that’s how he came off,
now at the full measure of his sensual craft.
The past month he had turned twenty-nine.
He loitered in the road, and in the poor
side-streets that led to his home.
Passing in front of a small shop
that sold cheap and tacky articles to labourers,
he saw a face within, he saw a figure
that goaded him to enter and feign interest
in viewing coloured handkerchiefs.
He asked about the quality of the handkerchiefs
and how much they cost in a voice drowning
and almost suffocated by desire.
And similarly came the replies:
distracted, in a faltering voice,
with tacit acquiescence.
All this time they were talking about a purchase – but
their only purpose: that their hands might brush
above the handkerchiefs; that their faces, their lips,
might draw near as if by chance –
a fleeting touch of limb on limb.
Quickly and quietly, to avoid the attention
of the shop owner who was sitting at the back.
He is an old man. Worn out and hunched over,
crippled by the years, and by excess,
slowly shuffling, he crosses the alley.
And yet, as he enters his home to bury
his misery and decline, he contemplates
the stake he still has in youth.
Young men recite his verses now.
His visions pass before their lively eyes.
Their vigorous, wanton minds,
their graceful and taut bodies,
stir to his avowal of beauty.
[Written 1911; Published 1913]
Ideal and adored voices
of those who have died, or of those who are
as lost to us as the dead.
Sometimes they speak in our dreams.
Sometimes the mind hears them in its thought.
And with their sound return for a moment
sounds of our life’s first poetry –
like music, at night, distant, fading.
[Written 1903; Published 1904]
George Christofi  is a graduate student in philosophy at Oxford. He translates Greek poetry at www.christo.fi.