L’esprit Décadent and the Early Writings
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the influence of Charles Baudelaire on C. P. Cavafy's earliest writings, including essays, fictional narratives, and prose poems. It first considers Cavafy's prose compositions—both expository and fictional—that function as an important index of his particular treatment of fin de siècle decadent tropes. It then discusses the impact of Edgar Allan Poe's aesthetic—refracted through Baudelaire—on Cavafy's evolving views on beauty and poetry. It also explains why Cavafy abandoned a career as a journalist critic and translator, turning his attention instead to poetry, and how Jean Moréas affected Cavafy's oeuvre. In addition, the chapter explores the flâneur in Cavafy's prose poems before concluding with a reading of Cavafy's gothic short story “In Broad Daylight”.
The influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on Cavafy was decisive in terms of the poet’s initial exposure to the debates on art for art’s sake that played out during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Cavafy’s familiarity with the work of Swinburne and Whistler, two of the primary conduits of Baudelairean aesthetic theory in England, would soon develop into a more direct engagement with Baudelaire and French decadent trends as they continued to evolve on both sides of the Channel. Indeed, it was Swinburne who may be credited with making Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du mal, L’Art Romantique, and Curiosités Esthétiques “part of the essential bibliography of Modernism.”1 Thus it is hardly a matter of chance that all three of these books were part of Cavafy’s library. Their presence confirms him as an astute reader of Baudelaire and substantiates his ongoing poetic dialogue with the poète maudit. This chapter focuses on Cavafy’s earliest writings (essays, fictional narratives, and prose poems) with a view to assessing the unmistakable influence of Baudelaire. By positioning Cavafy within the context of Baudelairean decadence, we may better appreciate (p.27) his particular treatment of fin de siècle decadent tropes. For in keeping with Baudelaire’s example, Cavafy will gradually become a professional decipherer of his city and a belated flâneur with an urban epistemology all his own.2
Days of 1891: Baudelaire and “Pleasures Even Stranger”
Although Cavafy never wrote a poem about the “Days of 1891,” critics are well advised to approach the year 1891 as though he had. The reasons for this have more to do with philological pursuits than with the erotic trajectories usually associated with this titular formula. In fact, the year 1891 holds a twofold significance for Cavafy: it is the year when he would begin publishing prose in earnest,3 and it also inaugurates his direct artistic engagement with Charles Baudelaire. (That year, as Eve Sedgwick [1990, 49] writes, also marks an epoch for readers fond of the male body with the appearance of Wilde’s Dorian Gray and Melville’s Billy Budd.) Cavafy’s development as a poet coincided with his early preoccupation with journalism and his rather vexed attempt to craft a credible yet artistic prose style. Equally important is Cavafy’s personal dialogue with Baudelaire, which has particular relevance for his prose compositions, especially the prose poems he penned between 1894 and 1897. A full understanding and appreciation of his artistic evolution must take into account both his early journalistic pursuits and his creative experimentation with prose, endeavors that resulted in his ultimate abandonment of prose as a viable mode of expression. To date, critics have tended to overlook Cavafy’s brief stint as a journalist and his active engagement with the intellectual debates of the late nineteenth century, which he effected through his prose articles, book reviews, and translations. His largely ignored prose compositions—published and unpublished alike—remain an important repository of ideas and serve as a means of exploring artistic modalities that would later become foundational for his mature poetry. His prose poems in particular illustrate how eager he was to emulate Baudelaire’s hybrid prose poems, avant-garde compositions that presage Cavafy’s mature poems and influenced the development of his notoriously prosaic poetics.4
Perhaps the most revealing statement about Baudelaire’s influence on Cavafy comes from the poet himself. In a curious note written in 1907, he (p.28) offers an intriguing comment on his conscious competitive engagement with the French poet:
This evening I was reading about Baudelaire. And the author of the book I was reading was like a shocked épatè with the Fleurs du mal. It’s been some time since I re-read the Fleurs du mal. From what I remember, it isn’t that shocking. And it seems to me that Baudelaire was enclosed within a very limited range of sensuality. Suddenly last night; or on the previous Wednesday; and on many other occasions, I lived and acted and fantasized, and silently devised pleasures even stranger.
Some sixteen years prior to penning this note, Cavafy had undertaken his most direct response to Baudelaire; in 1891 he composed the poem “Correspondence according to Baudelaire,” a variation on the sonnet “Correspondences,” in which he frames his own translation of the original text with verses that transpose it into a somewhat personal lyric. In his translation, Cavafy prefaces Baudelaire’s sonnet with lines that express his own elucidation of the Baudelairean synthesis:
- Aromas inspire me the way music,
- rhythm and beautiful words do,
- and I am delighted whenever Baudelaire
- interprets in harmonious verses
- what the soul in its wonder feels
- vaguely in sterile emotions.
The “sterile emotions” alluded to here correspond to the pervading sense of ennui, or “spleen,” that dominates Les Fleurs du mal. The antidote to this state of boredom is the contemplation of beauty, that particular and strange beauty apostrophized in the “Hymne à la Beauté”: “What difference, then, from heaven or from hell, / O Beauty, monstrous in simplicity? / If eye, smile, step can open me the way / To find unknown, sublime infinity?” (Baudelaire 1998, 45). This “monstrous” beauty alone alleviates the world-weariness that suffuses Baudelaire’s poetic universe, and only the urban poet initiated into the mysteries of decadence and experienced in the inspired meanderings of the flâneur is able to distill it into poetry.
(p.29) In this signature poem, sounds, colors, and decadent fragrances all combine to create the fundamental Baudelairean correspondence between the material and the spiritual, establishing the dialectic between spleen and ideal that generates the poetic tension of Les Fleurs du mal.5 This peculiar modern beauty defines Baudelaire’s decadent aesthetic, as Michel Brix aptly notes:
We see that beauty according to Baudelaire is not Platonist; the beautiful forms are not those arousing the intuition of eternal realities, but really those bearing moral significance—sadness, melancholy, bitter disappointment, joy, passion for living, etc. … [T]he Baudelairean conception of horizontal correspondences (or synaesthesia) … does not tie the Beautiful to the qualities of proportion, harmony, or symmetry of things, but with the inner self of the observer. … The artist’s task is to restore these moral impressions … and to recall the words which Baudelaire applies to Gautier, “to define the mysterious attitude which the objects of creation hold in the face of human observation.”6
Cavafy evokes this complex emotion and mysterious attitude in his poem with the words “απορούσα” (wonder) and “αγόνοις” (sterile) and shows an impressive understanding of Baudelaire’s admittedly “ασαφώς” (vague) yet complex aesthetic. This paradoxical tension between the observant interiority of the poet and the urban extroversion of the flâneur will gradually shape Cavafy’s own poetic point of view, culminating in poems such as “The City,” “The Next Table,” “At the Theater,” and “On the Stairs,” compositions in which the urban gaze takes on a heightened urgency and partakes of an unmistakably splenetic beauty.7
Fittingly enough, Cavafy’s introductory line about “rhythm and beautiful words” effectively paraphrases Edgar Allan Poe, whose aesthetics Baudelaire reinterpreted and promoted as his own proleptic version of art for art’s sake. Poe’s definition of poetry and simultaneous critique of progressive utilitarianism were expressed in his essay “The Poetic Principle,” where he writes, “I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth” (Poe 1992, 1027).8 Cavafy’s framing of Baudelaire and emphasis on rhythm and beautiful words establish a trajectory of thought rooted in Poe that encompasses (p.30) what Elizabeth Prettejohn terms “a transnational and transhistorical aesthetic brotherhood” (2007, 54).9 During the days of 1891, Cavafy, it appears, was determined to enter into its ranks.
Following these initial lines is Cavafy’s translation of the sonnet “Correspondences,” not only the centerpiece of the decadent movement but also a foundational text of modernism.10 Cavafy terminates the sonnet by adding his own poetic gloss:
- Do not believe only what you see.
- The eye of the poet is sharper.
- For them nature is a familiar garden.
- In dark paradise the other people
- grope on an arduous road.
- And the only brightness that sometimes lights
- their nightly march like an ephemeral spark
- is a brief impression of a chance
- magnetic neighborliness—
- a brief nostalgia, a momentary shudder,
- a dream of an hour of sunrise,
- a blameless joy suddenly flowing
- into the heart and suddenly fleeting.
Cavafy’s concluding lines juxtapose images of a groping crowd seemingly lost and damned but momentarily illuminated by an evanescent joy, the “mystic nourishment” of the flowers of the mind, the ideal beauty that strengthens both the crowd and the poet, who, as Walter Benjamin writes, “in the deserted streets, wrests poetic booty” (2006, 181).11
Baudelaire’s considerable influence on his generation went well beyond his poetic compositions; his translations of Poe’s tales and critical essays adumbrating Poe’s poetics and grotesque, arabesque aesthetic would have a great impact on French letters. It bears noting that Baudelaire commissioned the artist Alphonse Legros to illustrate his edition of Poe’s tales. Although these etchings never appeared with Baudelaire’s published translations, they were highly prized by collectors. In fact, a set was acquired by Legros’s patron, Constantine Ionides, and it is quite likely that Cavafy would have seen them and heard them discussed during his stay (p.31) in England.12 The curious proximity of Cavafy to Poe via Baudelaire and Legros suggests a direct line of influence linking Poe’s aesthetic to Cavafy’s evolving views on beauty and poetry. Surely Cavafy was well positioned to receive Baudelaire’s almost maniacal rehabilitation of Poe, whom he famously termed “ill fated” because of his unappreciative American audience. A notable example of Baudelaire’s apologia may be found in the opening paragraph of his essay “Further Notes on Edgar Poe,” where he offers a wry defense of decadence:
“Literature of the decadence!”–Empty words that we often hear dropping, with all the resonance of a flatulent yawn, from the lips of the sphinxes-without-a-riddle which stand guard before the holy portals of Classical Aesthetics. Each time that the dogmatic oracle echoes forth, you can be certain that you are in the presence of something more entertaining than the Iliad. It is undoubtedly a question of some poem or novel in which all the parts are skillfully interwoven to create surprise, a work superbly rich in style, in which all the resources of language and prosody have been employed by an unerring hand. … Civilized man has invented the doctrine of Progress to console himself for his surrender and decay; while primitive man, a feared and respected husband, a warrior obliged to personal valor, a poet in those melancholy moments when the declining sun bids him sing the past of his ancestors, comes closer to the fringes of the Ideal.
(1995, 93, 99)
This attack on the dogmatic “doctrine of Progress” is carried even further in the essay “Exposition Universelle, 1855,” where Baudelaire names progress as the preeminent heresy of his era:
There is another error, very much in fashion, which I wish to avoid like the Devil himself.–I am referring to the idea of progress. … This grotesque idea, which has flowered on the rotten soil of modern folly, has released each man from his duty, freed each soul from its responsibility, and has liberated the will from all the bonds imposed on it by love of the beautiful. And if this deplorable madness continues for long, the decadent races will fall into the driveling sleep of decrepitude on the pillow of destiny. This infatuation is the symptom of a decadence that is already too obvious.13
Here Baudelaire mischievously turns the tables on the critics of decadence by applying antidecadent invective to the very progressive ideology that (p.32) habitually dismissed aesthetic writing as degenerate and effete.14 Thus progress and its sister heresy “didacticism”15 become the original sins that Baudelaire, taking his lead from Poe, successively excoriates throughout his writings.
Cavafy was only too aware of the highly problematic debate surrounding the term “decadence” and the opprobrium with which avant-garde artists viewed bourgeois notions of progress. This is most evident in his poem “Builders” (1891), where the heresy of progress is resoundingly debunked:
- Progress is a tremendous edifice,—each carries
- his stone; one carries words, others counsel, another
- deeds—and day by day it raises its head
- higher. Should a hurricane, a sudden swell
- come, the good workers rush together
- in a throng and defend their lost work.
- Lost, because each one’s life is expended
- suffering abuse, pains, for a future generation,
- that this generation may know honest happiness
- and long life and riches and wisdom,
- without base sweat or servile work.
- But this fabled generation will never, never live.
- This work will be wrecked by its very perfection
- and all their vain toil will begin anew.
The cynicism evinced in this sonnet, which Cavafy published in the Athenian journal Attic Museum (1891) and later in the Alexandrian journal the Twentieth Century (1895), is more than hypothetical. Cavafy’s family had witnessed its own financial progress crumble and experienced the toil and riches of one generation collapse upon the heads of another. The family’s bankruptcy and the bombardment of Alexandria by the British in 1882 surely dispelled any illusions Cavafy might have had regarding stability, whether socioeconomic, cultural, civic, or other. The tremendous edifice of Greek diasporic progress informs this poem as much as any splenetic French influences. (That cosmopolitan Alexandria would all but vanish only two decades after Cavafy’s death is a fitting footnote to this poem.)16 Along with “Correspondence according to Baudelaire,” “Builders” serves (p.33) as an important ideological statement on fin de siècle notions of futility and pessimism, ideas that play out in Cavafy’s early and mature writings. Cavafy’s prose writings in particular offer an invaluable point of entry into the creative struggles and dilemmas that will remain central to his creative evolution, notably the problematics of crafting a prose style and the related challenge of navigating the perilous linguistic divide between the Greek purists and demoticists.
Performing in Prose
After three years in Constantinople, Cavafy returned to Alexandria in 1885 and began penning brief articles for various Greek diaspora newspapers, articles that necessarily required him to translate and transpose select texts that catered to the particular demands of his unique readership. The primary audience for which he composed his belle-lettrist journalistic pieces was the cosmopolitan Greek bourgeoisie residing in the great commercial cities of the Ottoman Levant—namely, Constantinople, Smyrna, Alexandria, and Cairo. Athens, the less cosmopolitan capital of the Greek kingdom, ranked lower on this list, although eventually it would become an important center for the dissemination and reception of Cavafy’s work and, ultimately, for the establishment of his poetic reputation. He also published prose essays in Leipzig and had undoubtedly intended a British venue for his earliest English compositions, factors that betray the poet’s highly ambitious but rather untenable internationalist posturing in the late nineteenth century. Cavafy’s Greek readership expected a peculiar style of learned journalism that consisted of a formulaic blend of encyclopedic dilettantism interspersed with choice translations of foreign authors and foreign journalists.17 The fact that the literary tastes of this late nineteenth-century fin de siècle readership differed drastically from those of the early twentieth century and post–World War I era—the period during which Cavafy found his mature poetic voice—surely induced him to view his early prose unfavorably in later years as unfashionably dated and even embarrassingly pretentious.
Much of the prose’s philological appeal and linguistic complexity lies in the stylistic nuances generated by Cavafy’s deft although not always elegant handling of puristic Greek (katharevousa). It should be noted that (p.34) he was writing at a time when the raging debate between purists and demoticists regarding the Greek language unduly complicated Greek writing of any kind.18 As nearly all prose during this period was written in katharevousa, Cavafy had to display his journalistic mastery of the cumbersome purist idiom for the public while simultaneously satisfying his more private creative impulses, attempting in the process to craft a lucid, effective, and learned prose. His prose writings are at once a chronicle of this struggle and an index of his ultimate failure to achieve a satisfying aesthetic prose style marked equally by elegance, clarity, and erudition.19
The prominent place of translation in Cavafy’s prose essays is more significant than many critics to date have realized. Like many poets, he used translation as a workshop of sorts for practicing and refining his own poetic craft.20 Since Cavafy offered very little direct commentary on the translation process during his lifetime, the verses from his brother John’s poem “Pygmalion Meditateth” that he appended to the end of his essay “Ολίγαι Λέξεις περί Στιχουργίας” (“A Few Words on Prosody,”1891) convey several important sentiments:
- Because to few the gods have lent
- Power to translate, in image or in song
- Their message; and of most the days are spent
- In silence, days unprofitably long
- When the muse whispers in an unknown tongue.
The reader of the essay is led to believe that these verses are Cavafy’s own, since he somewhat disingenuously neglects to identify John as their creator. In fact, “Pygmalion Meditateth” could easily have been written by either Constantine or John, so closely were the brothers collaborating at the time and so similar were their poetic compositions.21 Indeed, these lines serve as a fascinating testament to the intimate relationship between the brothers in matters of translation (it should be noted that John was Cavafy’s first translator). Moreover, they highlight the rather romantic view the Cavafy brothers held about the artistic merits of translation (“Because to few the gods have lent / Power to translate”). Translating (here both the essential poetic act and the linguistic rendering of poetry in a language familiar) is a divine activity involving the inspired mediation of the poetic ear, (p.35) which presumably understands the familiar language of the Muses. Precious though these sentiments may be, they go some way to explaining Cavafy’s fussy and even obstructionist attitude toward translations of his own work, the complex history of which requires its own study.22
Evidently Cavafy viewed his early function as a translator and learned journalist in a most exalted light. There have been numerous attempts to assess the translation-laden expository prose of nineteenth-century Greek journalists; the term “demosiologos” (literary journalist or journalistic philologist) coined by K. Th. Dimaras—a position midway between a journalist and writer23—best conveys Greek print culture of the nineteenth century, which is essentially the main tradition out of which Cavafy’s prose emerged. The erudite voice that comes through in Cavafy’s essays is largely that of a keen appreciator of literature rather than that of a literary critic (a criticism T. S. Eliot once leveled at Algernon Swinburne). Complicating this hybrid role of learned journalist is the requisite task of translating, a demanding activity that necessarily sapped one’s creative energies. Cavafy, as a fairly adept translator from English, French, and Italian into purist Greek, remained dutifully committed to satisfying the expectations of his readership while also attempting to fulfill the ideal Wildean function of the critic as artist. Striking this philological balance involved a constant struggle on the part of an aspiring intellectual like Cavafy, who, with a limited formal education, must have been acutely sensitive to any perceived deficiencies in his literary sophistication and linguistic abilities. To a large degree, his skills as a translator allowed him to drape himself in a romantic mantle while simultaneously concealing from the public any flagrant gaps in his knowledge or linguistic flaws in his proficiency with the Greek language.
Notwithstanding this romanticizing view of translation, Cavafy’s professional capacity as a journalist must soon have come into conflict with his higher calling as an “eternalist” (to use the favored and somewhat precious Victorian terminology).24 Cavafy would eventually abandon his professional journalistic aspirations after 1897 when he began to find writing prose and translating other poets and scholars less than gratifying. This waning enthusiasm clearly colored his views of his own essays. Two apocryphal statements have been passed down in this regard: Cavafy allegedly dismissed these writings as his “baggage in prose,”25 and he delighted in a friend’s claim that he famously refused three things: “Cavafy does not give (p.36) lectures, he does not grant interviews, and he does not write prose.”26 The very fact that Cavafy never felt confident about his prose writings and effectively discouraged interest in them during his lifetime creates a dilemma for his readers: How should we approach this corpus of which Cavafy was neither particularly proud nor pleased? We would do well to apply George Seferis’s comments on Cavafy’s rejected poems to his spurned prose: “The poet has nothing to fear now from these … [and] the serious student cannot afford to ignore them.”27
Cavafy’s negative appraisals raise an even more intriguing question: Why did Cavafy, who clearly was a connoisseur of fine prose (historical narratives in particular), fail to make a mark as an accomplished prose stylist? Could he not have paralleled the achievement of his prosaic poetics with an equally stunning aesthetic prose—a euphuistic “poetic prosaics,” as it were?28 The fact remains that he effectively abandoned writing prose, and a careful scrutiny of his prose texts suggests a number of probable reasons for this retreat. These curiously dissatisfying but ultimately fascinating texts comprise a vexed corpus, to be sure. Contrary to Cavafy’s qualifying comments, his prose remains fertile ground for furthering our critical understanding and evolving appreciation of the poet. Thematically, they serve as loci for many of his evolving literary, philological, and cultural interests; chronologically, they attest to the overall unity of his artistic output;29 stylistically, they chart his movement away from a stiff katharevousa to a more relaxed astiki demotike (urban demotic), paralleling a similar movement in his poetry; and psychologically, they betray a profound authorial frustration: the failure to achieve a satisfying aesthetic prose style and voice comparable to the one he would later find in poetry. One would thus be justified in claiming that Cavafy felt increasingly stifled by the prose medium—boxed in, as it were, by the very prose texts he would in turn box up and store away for posterity.
Fortunately, Cavafy never acted on his animus against his prose; on the contrary, he carefully preserved a significant amount of this material for future readers. There are some sixty-four texts categorized as prose in the most recently published edition of his Πεζά (Prose) (2003c). Twenty-eight of these were actually published during Cavafy’s lifetime in various newspapers and periodicals. Although these published writings roughly span the full period of his adult lifetime (1886 to 1931), the earliest pieces are unique in that they define the first public portrait we have of Cavafy: that (p.37) of the journalist dilettante and aspiring man of letters. Thus they constitute a public performance of sorts—his performance in prose—and curiously anticipate his future international reputation and global performance on the world stage of poetry.
Supplementing the actual published texts are the remaining thirty-six unpublished prose pieces, many of which were undoubtedly composed with publication in mind. Preserved as well are diaries, notes on poetics and ethics, short reflections, and comments on poems and translations. Taken as a whole, this corpus gives us a fuller canvas of Cavafy’s journalistic and cultural interests. The fact that he did not destroy these texts but preserved them in carefully arranged files is significant. He clearly meant them to be unpacked, edited, and studied. Indeed, Cavafy was fond of using container metaphors—boxes, chests, drawers—for conveying the storing up of valuable relics that document the examined life of the artist. His prose poem “Ενδύματα” (“Garments”) offers a revealing meditation on safeguarding the relics of one’s life, all of which are preserved in a bureau of precious ebony “with much reverence and much sorrow.” If one reads this as an aesthetic fable à la Baudelaire allegorizing the “artistic quest,”30 then Cavafy’s prose narratives become much more than mere curiosities of literature; collectively they offer profound insights into his view of the creative process.
To date, Cavafy’s archived prose writings have been referenced primarily by critics and scholars when they discuss his poems, serving the rather pedestrian function of helpful intertextual glosses. The well-known bias that poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking reflects a lingering critical view that has certainly influenced the reception of his essays. His prose writings have seldom been appreciated as a corpus on their own, since, rather than focusing on their content, readers tend to fixate on their challenging style—either quaint Victorian English, stiff puristic katharevousa, or formal urban demotic. On the most basic level, readers should certainly approach them as “garments” from the poet’s life that provide valuable insights into his artistic mind and rare documentation of his literary and emotional interests.31 On a more critical level, however, they would do well to engage directly with Cavafy’s texts on their own terms—as independent autonomous texts, since in most instances they are highly finished pieces of writing that aspire to be both informative and persuasive, formal and personal.
(p.38) Cavafy’s rise to global fame and his undisputed place in the pantheon of world literature is a phenomenon not unrelated to his earliest cosmopolitan posturing and cultural aspirations as a journalist. We dwell perhaps too readily on E. M. Forster’s image of the reclusive poet in a straw hat standing at a slight angle to the universe, on the self-absorbed artist who circulated limited editions of his personally bound broadsheets to select readers. Behind this retreating persona, however, was a man who craved fame but who calculated his moment cautiously, as is evidenced by his returning unsigned a publishing contract for an English translation of his poems to Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1925. How peculiar in light of the recent publishing milestones of the Oxford World Classics bilingual edition of Cavafy’s collected poems, the Penguin Classics Selected Poems, and the Everyman Edition. Timing, of course, is everything, and with the benefit of hindsight, we can now appreciate Cavafy’s intuitive sense that the 1920s was not the right decade for him to be launched. Surely his years spent as a journalist taught him how to be print savvy, as did his early exposure to publicity in the press. The explosive period of the 1880s and 1890s, when publishing and journalism underwent a mass-market transformation analogous to today’s Internet-based information revolution, provided Cavafy with a great deal of wisdom about the politics of publishing and fame. Thus his apprenticeship in prose and his brief sporadic media performances on an international stage would have significant ramifications for his future promotional strategies and his emerging reputation as a poet.32
One important fact to keep in mind is that many of Cavafy’s early prose writings were in English, a detail that has been commented on but not fully appreciated. Stratis Tsirkas was of the opinion that the poet “thought” in English,33 a notion borne out by these early texts, which attest to Cavafy’s fluency in the language and lifelong interest in English literature. Certainly, given his family’s extensive social and literary connections in England, he intended to publish his English essays in British periodicals; indeed, these essays show beyond a doubt that he could have charted a path for himself as an English prose stylist had he wished. Cavafy highly valued English prose and was conscious of the inspiring but equally intimidating emergence of the cult of Victorian prose. He was an avid reader of Ruskin, Macaulay, Pater, and Wilde, prose masters who surely could have served as examples for his own future aesthetic essays.34 Edward Gibbon’s magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire also remained one of Cavafy’s (p.39) favored texts, and he made numerous marginal notes in which he took stylistic issue with the historian.35
Cavafy’s probable intention to publish in England was an ambitious but somewhat impractical goal, since his early essays are utterly awash in folkloric content. This was to be expected given the excessive omnipresence of the discourse of laographia (folklore) in Greek literary circles in the 1880s and ’90s.36 The problematic presence of folklore in Cavafy’s early writing surely had a very significant impact on the course of his future essays. Although we do not normally associate laographia with Cavafy, it should be noted that the only teacher to be definitively linked with the poet is Constantine Papazis, with whom Cavafy studied in Alexandria in 1881–82. Papazis was a student of Nikolaos Politis, the “father” of Greek folklore,37 and thus it comes as no surprise that Cavafy’s earliest topics would include “The Romaic Folk-Lore of Enchanted Animals” (1884–86), “Coral from a Mythological Perspective” (1886), “Lycanthropy” (1882–84), “Beliefs Concerning the Soul” (1884), social customs in Burma, and African creation theories. While clearly informational in content, these essays document important interests in enchantment, the supernatural, and Orphic arcana, cultural preoccupations that will reappear in Cavafy’s mature poetry, where Greek magic and the Hellenistic and Byzantine occult figure prominently.38
Although Cavafy would later reject the ethnocentric and nationalist literary conventions that were ushered in by folklorists when composing verse in his mature decadent mode, he does return rather curiously to the topic of folklore in 1914 and 1917 when reviewing Politis’s Εκλογαί από τα ΤραγούδιΆ του Ελληνικού Λαού (Selections of the Songs of the Greek People) and M. G. Michailidis’s Καρπαθιακά Δημοτικά Άσματα (Carpathian Demotic Songs). Additionally, in 1921 he worked on a student anthology of demotic folk songs for the Educational Association of Egypt, where, in a commentary, he advocated a healthy dose of this subject for students, implying that the folkloric excesses of his own days were indeed problematic and even stifling.39 This interesting early and late presence of folklore in Cavafy’s writings provides one clue perhaps to his eventual disengagement from journalism and consequently from prose writing itself. The excessive discourse of laographia ran counter to his own literary tastes, and he consciously withdrew from literary journalism largely because of the problematic ethnocentrism of laographia and its reification by prose (p.40) writers and language theorists (Alexandros Papadiamatis, Kostis Palamas, and Jean Psycharis, among others). Cavafy chose to sidestep the intense public forum in which these philological culture wars were being waged, retreating instead to the more private realm of his poetic haven, where he could perform on his own terms and publish in a more controlled and strategic manner.
This is not to say that Cavafy did not engage directly with the issue of “Greekness,” pronouncements on which from Greek journalists were expected by readers during this period. On the contrary, he rose to the occasion and chose topics that allowed him to appease the ethnocentric expectations and demands of his readership while simultaneously satisfying his own literary interests. The thematic focus on an unapologetic Hellenicity is another important hallmark of Cavafy’s prose essays. Indeed, in many of his essays, the fine line between chauvinism and criticism does not always hold. The titles of the essays alone illustrate this Hellenocentric perspective well enough—“Ελληνικά Ίχνη εν τω Σακεσπήρω” (“Traces of Greek Thought in Shakespeare”), “Έλληνες Λόγιοι εν Ρωμαϊκαίς Οικίαις” (“Greek Scholars in Roman Houses”), “Οι Βυζαντινοί Ποιηταί” (“The Byzantine Poets”)—essays that foreground the cultural supremacy of Hellenism. More often than not, Cavafy found himself promoting Hellenism in the high rhetoric of the day. An example of this bombast may be seen in the concluding sentence of the essay “Το Μουσείον Μας” (“Our Museum,” 1892), which marks the opening of the Greco-Roman Museum of Alexandria: “[The museum] presents to us an image of that noble civilization that developed so robustly in Egypt, as in another Greece, which injected into the Orient the Greek spirit and bequeathed Greek refinement and grace to the Oriental ideas with which it came into contact.”40 A more sentimental view is expressed at the conclusion of his essay “The Byzantine Poets”: “A beneficent fate has endowed the Greek race with the divine gift of poetry. The vast and garlanded realm of poetry is like our spiritual homeland. We Greeks are obliged to study our poetry attentively—the poetry of every period of our ethnic life. For in this poetry we will find the genius of our race in all its fineness along with the beating pulse of Hellenism’s very heart.”41 Similar sentiments appear throughout these prose writings and illustrate how different Cavafy’s approach to matters Hellenic remained without the mediation of poetic irony and literary decadence.
(p.41) Offsetting and augmenting this preoccupation with Hellenism is the pronounced impact of British publications, whose influence on Cavafy cannot be overestimated, especially as regards his choice of topics and the shaping of his literary and cultural interests. We know that he was an avid reader of the Gentleman’s Magazine, the Nineteenth Century, the Temple Bar, and the Fortnightly Review. He frequently confronts the featured topics of these publications, writing with the unmistakable poise and verve of a British subject, which, of course, he technically was, although he allegedly renounced his British citizenship in 1885. In 1891, Cavafy takes on the issue of the Elgin Marbles in what are perhaps his best-known essays. In 1893, he addresses the political plight of Cyprus in a review of George Chacalli’s treatise Cyprus and the Cypriot Question, an English publication that he formulaically excerpts, translates, and critiques for his readers. His rather strident tone on both Cyprus and the Elgin Marbles reflects an uncharacteristic aggressiveness and political assertiveness, indicating that Cavafy was initially quite serious about following a journalistic career.42 As Liddell points out, these topics, although atypically political for the poet Cavafy, were partly topical: “The Cyprus question was comparatively new in 1893, and one James Knowles had lately written a foolish article making fun of Frederic Harrison’s suggestions that the Elgin marbles should be returned to Athens.”43 Cavafy’s essays on the Elgin marbles fall squarely within the discourse of the period on Greece’s national identity formation. On a secondary level, since the marbles are specimens of some of the most sensuous sculpture ever produced in the ancient world, one can assume that Cavafy’s interest in their return is of a piece with his ongoing fixation on the representation of the male body and the Greek celebration of beauty. The essays, regrettably, refrain from any aesthetic discussion of the marbles’ artistic merits, even though a precedent for this type of appreciation was readily at hand in Pater’s essay on the German art historian Johann Winckelmann and his aesthetic views on Greek sculpture.
The weighty influence of British culture on Cavafy’s writings during the 1890s is also apparent in the peculiar subject matter of his prose, which reflects aesthetic tastes he acquired during his stay in England between 1872 and 1877, as discussed in the previous chapter. The extent to which Cavafy was influenced by the Victorian press may be more fully appreciated by glancing at the table of contents of the periodicals he read and to which he responded in kind with essays and, in some instances, even poems. (p.42) The list of articles featured in the Nineteenth Century and the Fortnightly Review in the prolific year 1891 reveals a significant thematic overlap between Cavafy’s reading and writing interests. The following list includes the relevant titles of articles from the two aforementioned periodicals:
The Nineteenth Century
- “Give Back the Elgin Marbles” by Frederic Harrison
- “The Joke about the Elgin Marbles” by James Knowles
- “The ‘Mimes’ of Herodas” by C. Whibley
- “French Authors on Each Other” by E. Delille
- “The Poet of the Klephts: Aristoteles Valaoritis” by Rennell Rodd
- “Shakespeare and Modern Greek” by John Stuart Blackie
The Fortnightly Review
- “The Celt in English Art” [Burne-Jones] by Grant Allen
- “The Poet Verlaine” by Edward Delille
- “Baudelaire: the Man” by Edward Delille
- “The Paris Salons of 1891” by Mabel Robinson
- “Editorial Horseplay” [Elgin Marbles] by Frederic Harrison
- “The Soul of Man under Socialism” by Oscar Wilde
- “A Preface to Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde
Cavafy composed direct responses to many of these articles: he engaged with James Knowles and Frederick Harrison in the pieces he penned on the Elgin Marbles; he wrote a laudatory response to John Stuart Blackie’s article on the modern Greek language; he composed a poem on the mimes of Herodas (1892*). In more general terms, the subject matter of French poetry, Baudelaire, Pre-Raphaelite painting and literary decadence discussed in these printed venues will resonate deeply in Cavafy’s writings during the 1890s. In short, the contents of these two periodicals fully coincide with his journalistic and literary interests during this decade, constituting as they do a heady combination of Greek politics, archaeology, philology, and literary trends that dovetailed almost seamlessly with his own favored pursuits.
Perpetually lurking behind these sundry and wide-ranging topics is the problematic Greek language question, which garners a fair share of Cavafy’s attention, specifically the philological viewpoints related to Greek (p.43) grammar and prosody. Cavafy engages directly with the writings of three philologists: as previously noted, he reviewed and excerpted the theories of John Stuart Blackie, professor of Greek in Edinburgh, in an article published in 1891. In his essay on the Byzantine poets (1892) he pays homage to the philological views of Karl Krumbacher; and in unpublished essays we have Cavafy’s reviews of Emmanuel Roidis’s Τα Είδωλα (The Idols, 1893–97) and Hubert Pernot’s book on modern Greek grammar (1918), all of which reveal Cavafy’s interest in and anxiety over the language question. These texts shed much light on Cavafy’s own gradual voyage from katharevousa to demotike; they also show how diligently he followed the Greek language debate and allow for speculation on the deleterious effect this debate had on the formation and evolution of his own prose style. In a revealing letter written in 1906, Cavafy makes the following comments on the problem of abandoning katharevousa:
Some—myself included—hesitate to sacrifice katharevousa in its entirety, and do not agree to condemn all the linguistic work of an entire century (and more than a century). … We who are now returning to the demotic language are pilgrims, devoted and passionate pilgrims who are entering into a temple and will remove, of course, all of the gaudy decorations and the superfluous dressing that spoil it, but without violence and without prejudice, so that we do not risk overlooking and discarding in the heap—like fools—a certain golden oil-vase or a chest of bright mother of pearl.44
One cannot but notice in this decadent tableau of iconoclastic spoilage the favored metaphor of the precious container—the recherché motif of the treasure chest of language—and its immediate thematic proximity to matters of style and creativity.
From a stylistic point of view, Cavafy admired the learned elegance of Emmanuel Roidis, whose katharevousa he attempted to imitate, with rather mixed results. He pays tribute to numerous Greek prose stylists in his writings, both contemporary and ancient. Cavafy valued, in addition to Roidis, the prose writings of the historian Constantine Paparrigopoulos and the author Dimitrios Vikelas, as well as various Byzantine historians who he felt wrote history dramatically. The prose of Philostratus (AD 170–245) is celebrated in the essay “Λάμια” (“Lamia,” 1892), as is that of the late-antique writer Lucian (AD 120) in the essay on Greek scholars in Roman houses (1896). Lucian’s epideictic prose pieces were among (p.44) Cavafy’s favorite; indeed, this early sophistic engagement with Lucian greatly influenced his own notion of Greek performativity—how being Greek was a cultural matter of performing in Greek45—something he would have experienced firsthand when displaying and proving his own acquired mastery of katharevousa in the public press.
The anxiety Cavafy felt over the dilemma of selecting a language that would optimize his literary performativity comes through in a comment he penned in December 1905:
The wretched laws of society—neither the result of healthy or critical thinking—have diminished my work. They have inhibited my expressiveness; they have prevented me from imparting light and emotion to those who are made like me. The difficult circumstances of life have forced me to labor greatly in order to master the English language. What a shame. If I had labored equally in French—if circumstances had allowed it, and the French language was of equal use to me—then perhaps in French—owing to the ease that its pronouns provide, which both describe and hide—I would have been able to express myself more freely. In the end, what shall I do? I am, aesthetically speaking, wasting myself. And I shall remain an object of conjecture; and people will understand me more so by what I have denied.
These thoughts, although clearly written in reference to Cavafy’s problem of revealing and concealing his homosexuality in his poetry, speak equally to his stylistic predicament with prose. Here we have a clue as to why he never opted to pursue a Paterian path as an English prose stylist: the English language was less flexible and English literature too puritanical, as he states directly in comments written in October 1905:
For me, that which makes English literature cold—besides some deficiencies of the English language—is—how shall I say it—the conservatism, the difficulty—or the unwillingness—to stray from the established, and the fear of offending morality, the pseudo-morality, since this is what we should call a morality that feigns naiveté.
During these past ten years, how many French books—both good and bad—have been written that examine and bravely consider the new phase of eros. It is not new; it is just that for centuries it has been ignored, under the assumption that it was insanity (science says that it isn’t) or a crime (logic (p.45) says that it isn’t). No English book that I know of [mentions it.] Why? Because they are afraid of confronting prejudice. Nevertheless, this erotic tendency also exists among the English, as it exists—and existed—among all of the nations, to a limited extent, of course.
Cavafy’s sentiments betray his deep misgivings about the choices and limitations presented to him by his linguistic predicament; moreover, they reveal how deeply he agonized over his stylistic options. The notorious alternative example Cavafy has in the back of his mind here is that set by the Greek poet Jean Moréas, who chose a French path of letters for himself and effectively turned his back on the Greek language.
The Celebrated Dandyism of Jean Moréas
On February 3, 1891, a highly significant literary event took place in Paris: a banquet was held to celebrate the literary achievement of the Greek expatriate poet Jean Moréas (Ioannis Papadiamantopoulos) and the launching of his volume Le Pèlerin passionné. As John David Butler writes in his study of Moréas,
A banquet [was] held on February 3 at the Hotel des Sociétés Savantes, on the rue Serpente, and presided over by none other than Stéphane Mallarmé. Given in honor of Jean Moréas’ latest work, it was known as “le banquet du Pèlerin passionné,” and signaled the apotheosis of the Symbolist movement and the apogee of public acclaim for Moréas. The list of names of those in attendance reads like a “Who’s Who” in the world of letters and art of the time. … Suffice it to say that as a result of the publication of this volume and the acclaim given it at a banquet honoring the author and his work, Moréas’s reputation as a leading poetic voice of the day was solidly established, and the extent of his acclamation by the public and his peers reached heights which were not to be surpassed even when he was later to publish his masterpiece, Les Stances. It seems that for a while, Moréas overshadowed even Mallarmé and Verlaine.
(1967, 71, 73)46
Whereas Baudelaire stood at one end of the decadent-symbolist spectrum, the other end was occupied by Moréas. The fact that one of the chief apologists of décadisme (later renamed symbolism by Moréas)47 in France was a (p.46) Greek poet would have been a matter of consequence for a budding poet like Cavafy, who from a young age sought to strike a cosmopolitan note in his writing and resist the trap of Greek provincialism. Indeed, the spectacular example of Moréas’s rise to the pinnacle of French literary society set a formidable precedent for the young Cavafy, who could only fantasize about achieving such status.
Moréas was not only a master of the French language but also a notorious dandy and poseur who was sought out by aspiring poets and writers. Richard Ellmann relates the amusing details surrounding Oscar Wilde’s desire to meet Moréas and their dining encounter in 1891 at the Côte d’Or:
For once, Wilde had to yield the floor, as Moréas expounded the theories of the Ecole Romane. … At dessert… Wilde asked Moréas to recite some verses. “I never recite,” replied Moréas. … [When others began reciting poetry about Moréas], Wilde grew visibly uneasy at the worship of Moréas. … Conquered, routed, he who had silence about him in the salons of London, asked for his hat and coat and fled into the night. He recovered later, and asked Moréas … and others to dinner. This time he ruled the table with his stories. Moréas commented as he left, “This Englishman is a shit.” When Moréas was mentioned afterwards, Wilde would say, “Moréas, does he really exist?” Answered in the affirmative, he went on, “How strange! I’ve always thought Moréas was a myth.”
(Ellmann 1988, 347–348)
Although Cavafy never met Moréas, he left behind a few apocryphal comments on Moréas’s career. In a remark recorded by Timos Malanos, Cavafy noted that Moréas had an easier path before him than he himself had:
Cavafy supported the view that Moréas, by opting to compose in a malleable language like French, found himself as an artist of the poetic word in a much easier position than his Greek fellow poet of the same period who had, in addition, to wrestle with numerous obstacles in order to create an expressive medium. In addition, he maintained that had Moréas written his work in Greek, his position in a young literature like our own would have been much more significant than that which he secured in French letters. “I also found myself in the same dilemma”—he told me one day—“whether to write in our language or chose another.”
(Malanos 1957, 249–250)
From these comments and the previously cited note written in 1905, we may conclude that Cavafy certainly struggled with the temptation to (p.47) follow Moréas’s example. His reasons for rejecting this option likely have to do with his commitment to the Greek language as well as with apprehensions related to the problematic reception Moréas received from the mainstream bourgeoisie.
Cavafy was fully aware of the negative criticism heaped upon Moréas by the detractors of literary decadence. Moréas’s rise to literary prominence in decadent-symbolist circles was written up in the pages of the Nineteenth Century and Fortnightly Review by Edward Delille, the literary critic who contributed regularly to these journals. His articles provide an important point of reference for the debate on decadence and were certainly read by Cavafy. In a comprehensive article titled “French Authors on Each Other” (1891), Delille overviews numerous polemical statements on the subject of decadence, focusing a significant amount of attention on Moréas. The critique of Moréas offered in this article is worth citing. Delille excerpts from Jules Huret’s preface to Enquette sur l’Evolution Litterairee, a collection of interviews, pen portraits and revelations. Moréas’s volume of poetry Pèlerin passionne is referenced numerous times in Huret’s book. M. Lemaitre faults them for being a “mass of incomprehensible rubbish,” while M. Naurice Barres writes, “As to the symbolists, I like Moréas, and I like his talent, but I, for my part, should hardly care to devote a lifetime to the task of chiselling phrases and reviving obsolete terms” (Delille 785—emphasis added). These stinging lines and the very mixed reception of Moréas’s poetic oeuvre resonate in a note Cavafy wrote in English in 1902, “Obsolete Words”:
It is one of the talents of great stylists to make obsolete words cease from appearing obsolete through the way in which they introduce them in their writing. Obsolete words which under the pens of others would seem stilted or out of place, occur most naturally under theirs. This is owing to the tact & the judgment of the writers who know when—& when only—the disused term can be introduced, when it is artistically agreeable or linguistically necessary; & of course then the obsolete word becomes obsolete only in name. It is recalled into existence by the natural requirements of a powerful or subtle style. It is not a corpse disinterred (as with less skillful writers) but a beautiful body awaked from a long & refreshing sleep.
In addition to being highly cognizant of Moréas as a great stylist, Cavafy also appears to have been influenced by his verse. The necromantic (p.48) metaphor of a beautiful body lying in eternal slumber or awaking from a long sleep appears often in Cavafy’s work, and it is quite likely that he appropriated it from Moréas’s early poem “Chimaera” (from Les Syrtes),48 in which Moréas creates a quintessentially decadent tableau:
I lit the mortuary brightness of crystal lamps in the depths of the crypt where you lie, eyes rolled back; and my dream gathers swamp flowers to ennoble your pale mourning flesh. I spoke strange palatal sounds after the necromancer’s rite for the dead, and on your lips of bloody foxglove red, sleeping potions suddenly fermented. Thus I created you from the ultimate essence, an unwitherable ghost haloed with stars, to purify myself of lust, to console my heart sunken into infamy.
(Houston and Houston 1980, 121)
Several of Cavafy’s funereal poems come to mind here—particularly “In the Month of Athyr” (1917)—as does his “Following the Recipe of Ancient Greco-Syrian Magicians” (1931). Cavafy’s poem “Longings” (1904), however, presents the closest parallel:
- Like the beautiful bodies of those who died before they had aged,
- sadly shut away in a sumptuous mausoleum,
- roses by the head, jasmine at the feet—
- so appear the longings that have passed
- without being satisfied, not one of them granted
- a night of sensual pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.
Roses and jasmine conjure up the pungent odors of Baudelaire’s “flowers of evil” in both Cavafy’s and Moréas’s poems. The overwhelming presence of such decadent tropes substantiates Timos Malanos’s critical observation that during the turn of the century, Cavafy was writing under the full spell of French verse (1957, 221).
The Flâneur and the Prose Poem
The profound influence of Baudelaire is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Cavafy’s attempt to master the prose poem, undoubtedly the most satisfying of all his prose works. His prose compositions—“Το Σύνταγμα (p.49) της Ηδονής” (“The Pleasure Brigade”), “Τα Πλοία” (“The Ships”), and “Ενδύματα” (“Garments”)—may be read as “fables of the artistic quest” à la Baudelaire.49 Moreover, they provide a glimpse of what Cavafy might have gone on to achieve in this hybrid genre had he not abandoned prose altogether. Along with his short story “Εις το Φως της Ημέρας” (“In Broad Daylight”), they constitute the apex of Cavafy’s prose accomplishments, even though they all remained unpublished during the poet’s lifetime.
Prior to composing these variations on the prose poem, Cavafy penned what is clearly his first flâneur narrative, “Μία Νυξ εις το Καλιντέρι” (“A Night on the Calinder,” 1885–86). A recollection of his stay in Constantinople (the towns mentioned in the story—Kalinderi, Neochorion, Therapeia, and Büyükdere—are located on the shores of the Bosphorus, the area where Cavafy initially lived with his mother’s relatives in 1882), this narrative attempts a rather ambitious synthesis of Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” motif with elements of Greek folklore. Although opening with the unmistakable urban stroll of the flâneur, which includes sitting in a café and acutely observing people’s faces and habits, the story soon veers in a sentimental direction owing to the overriding presence of a folk song about death overheard by the narrator:
Suddenly the silence was shattered. A large boat appeared sailing in the direction of Therapeia in which a group of people were singing. They sang beautifully. Not of course according to all standards of music—the simple peasants who were in the boat possessed no notion of the theories of the Conservatoires, nor did their ancestor the Thracian Orpheus who could enchant stones with his music. The song which interrupts—or should I say accompanies—the silence of the summer evening is one of the things I love best. This is natural music. It is the true music of the soul, I think, just as the frigid noise of the salon piano is the music of agitated nerves.
- Don’t take him so quickly to the grave,
- let him enjoy the sun a little bit longer!
- Don’t take him so quickly, it’s a shame—
- he barely knew what it meant to live.
I felt a tremendous emotional reaction. I was expecting a cheerful song about youthful exploits, full of happiness and life, one of those valiant songs which the fertile and vibrant shores of the Bosphorus produce. Instead of this I heard in these simple and unpolished verses—the invention of some rural poet’s Muse—a bitter lament about the vanity of all things, that most ancient complaint of suffering man, “all lies, all shadows.”
The flowers continued to exude their perfumed eloquence all around me; the waves continued to rush forward laughingly towards distant happy shores, the sky continued to present its resplendent peace-all things were harmoniously in sync with some mystical promise of complete bliss. Nevertheless, the voices of the singers did not desist but increased, melancholic and bold, as a protest against the enchanting but deceptive beauty of the world.
Here we should note the Baudelairean venture into nature (“Man walks within these groves of symbols” [“Correspondences,” Baudelaire 1993, 19]) and the synesthetic correspondence of sights, sounds, and smells that culminate in the splenetic message communicated to the poet. The folk song, however, introduces a maudlin note that lacks the macabre effect found in Poe’s grotesque analogues. Moreover, the folkloric memento mori, which was clearly intended to satisfy Cavafy’s prospective audience, proves less than effective since it causes a narrative digression from an urbane flânerie into folkloric sentimentality.
Curiously enough, Cavafy took a great interest in revising this piece. In a note to his friend Pericles Anastasiades, he wrote, “‘A Night on the Calinder’ is an old article which I have retouched. I am rather satisfied with its diction, over which I have taken many pains. I have tried to blend the spoken with the written language and have called to my help in the process of mixture all my experience and as much artistic insight, as I possess in the matter—trembling, so to speak, over every word” (2003b, 366). Despite its flaws, the narrative offers a fascinating autobiographical commentary on Cavafy’s emerging artistic persona, specifically the complex synthesis of the dilettantish journalist, the aspiring flâneur poet, and the posing dandy, aspects of his personality that will develop in varying degrees during the 1890s.50
(p.51) The Baudelairean decadent aesthetic is more clearly manifest in the prose poem “Το Σύνταγμα της Ηδονής” (“The Pleasure Brigade,” 1894–97), which begins with the admonition “Do not speak of either guilt or responsibility. When the Pleasure Brigade passes by with music and banners, when the senses pulsate and tremble, those who keep their distance and refrain from taking up the good cause and its march toward the triumph of pleasure and passion are foolish and vulgar” (Cavafy 2010, 81). Moral laws and vague virtues are to be shunned in this aesthetic parable, which articulates the amoral hedonistic ethos of Les Fleurs du mal: “Be not deceived by the blasphemers who tell you that subservience to sensual pleasure is dangerous and painful. Subservience to pleasure brings perpetual joy. It exhausts you but exhausts with sublime intoxication. And when ultimately you collapse on the road, only then is your fate worthy of envy” (81).51 The poem climaxes with a precious tableau of the poet’s vindication after death: “When your funeral procession passes, the Forms which were shaped by your desires will throw lilies and white roses upon your casket, the young Olympian gods will lift you onto their shoulders and will bury you in the Cemetery of the Ideal where the mausoleums of poetry glisten in whiteness” (80). Cavafy’s use of the term “ideal” here is clearly indebted to Baudelaire’s quasi-platonic use of the word in his poetic dialectic between spleen and the ideal in Les Fleurs du mal, another example of how deeply he had imbibed the avant-garde thematics of the French poet.52
In a similar vein, the prose poem “Ενδύματα” (“Garments,” 1894–97)—the only prose poem written purely in the demotic idiom—foresees a time when the poet will have experienced a full artistic life: “I shall place and safeguard the garments of my life inside a chest or in a bureau made of precious ebony. … I will look upon these clothes and will remember the great celebration—which by then will be completely finished” (Cavafy 2010, 80). Echoes of Baudelaire’s poem “Spleen (II)” are evident here: “More memories than if I’d lived a thousand years! // A giant chest of drawers, stuffed to the full / […] / I am a dusty boudoir where are heaped / Yesterday’s fashions” (Baudelaire 1998, 147). Cavafy concludes with a piquant image of entombed somnolence: “Completely finished. The furniture scattered haphazardly throughout the halls. Plates and glasses broken on the floor. All the candles burned out. All the wine consumed. All the guests departed. A few weary people will be sitting all alone, like myself, inside dark houses—others who are even more weary will have gone to sleep” (2010, 80). The (p.52) shortest of the prose poems, “Garments” offers a most succinct message regarding the precious value of an artist’s archival memorabilia and the need to preserve and store away what one day might prove invaluable.
The most ambitious and impressive prose poem is “Τα Πλοία” (“The Ships,” (1895–96), in which Cavafy’s debt to Baudelaire is unmistakable. Originally titled “Το Ταξίδι” (“The Voyage”), the piece echoes Baudelaire’s prose poems “Le Port” and “L’Invitation au voyage,” as well as the poem “Le Beau Navire.” It begins by evoking the whiteness of the blank page before the writer embarks on his imaginative journey and then proceeds to develop an elaborately extended metaphor of the voyage as an artistic experience: “From Imagination to Paper. It is a difficult crossing, a dangerous sea. At first sight the distance appears short, but in fact the journey is a long one, and very damaging for the ships that undertake it” (2010, 84).53 The ships function allegorically as vehicles that carry precious thoughts and ideas, cargo that is alternately vulnerable to confiscation by customs agents (censors),54 damage by mishandling (hostile philistines), or stagnation owing to the shallow harbors (the petty middle class):
The first bit of damage occurs owing to the very delicate nature of the cargo being transported on the ships. In the markets of the Imagination, the majority of wares and the best items are fashioned out of delicate glass and diaphanous ceramic, and despite all worldly precaution, many break on the journey and many break when they are being unloaded on to land. Any damage of this sort is irreparable, since it is impossible for the boat to go back and procure similar wares. There is no chance of finding the same shop that sold the items. Although the markets of the Imagination have large and sumptuous stores, they are short-lived. They conduct brief transactions, they dispose of their wares quickly, and they dissolve immediately. It is very rare that, upon returning, a ship will find the same exporters with the very same goods.
The overt focus on merchandise in the poem is in keeping with Baudelaire’s own mercantilism in “L’Invitation au voyage,” which, as Barbara Johnson notes, combines “metaphors of commerce with a panegyric to the priceless” (1980, 38).
The concluding paragraphs of the poem contain passages of great subtlety and evocative power and bear testimony to Cavafy’s unrealized potential to master this hybrid genre:
(p.53) There is one other thing that is lamentable, most lamentable. This is when certain great ships pass by, festooned with coral and masts of ebony, with great white and red flags unfurled, laden with treasures, which never even approach the harbor since either all of their cargo is banned or the harbor is not deep enough to receive them. And they continue on their way. A tail wind fills the sails of silk and the sun illumines the glory of their golden prows, and they sail off gently and majestically, distancing themselves from us and our shallow port forever.
Fortunately these ships are quite rare. At most we will see two or three during our lifetime. And we quickly forget them. However bright the vision might have been, its memory will fade just as quickly. And after a few years pass, if one day—while we sit indolently watching the light of day or listening to the silence—if by chance some inspired verses return to our mind’s ear, reminding us that we have heard these melodies before—we do not recognize them at first, and we rack our brains to remember where we once heard them before. After much effort, our old memory awakens and we recall that these strophes were part of the song sung by the sailors—sailors as beautiful as the heroes of The Iliad—when the great ships were passing us by, those sublime ships that were heading—who knows where.
The narrative imitatively evinces the “quasi-pictorial tonality”55 found in Baudelaire’s prose poems, which were, in many instances, attempts to transpose impressions of paintings into prose (the subject of Cavafy’s pictorialist poetics will be taken up in the next chapter). “The Ships” climaxes in a striking vision that blends the visual and aural in a synesthetic combination that exemplifies the quintessential Baudelairean correspondence between the material and the spiritual, splenetic ennui supplanted by sublime beauty.
Cavafy’s experiments in prose also extended to the short story; “Εις το Φως της Ημέρας” (“In Broad Daylight,” 1895–96) remains his best-known prose composition, having been translated into English as early as 1983 by James Merrill for the literary magazine Grand Street and more recently by David Connolly and Nikolas Kostis.56 The story is written in the gothic manner of Poe and involves a young man named Alexander A., who is visited by a ghost who instructs him to exhume treasure chests filled with gold and jewels that lie buried by Pompey’s Pillar in Alexandria. The ghost requires only an iron box that is part of this bounty, the contents of which remain mysteriously ambiguous. The story’s protagonist, whom (p.54) most readers view as a thinly veiled portrait of Cavafy, panics after the third encounter with the ghost “in broad daylight” (the first two were in dreams) and flees in terror. The treasure is never excavated, the mysterious iron box never retrieved, and the story concludes with Alexander A. recovering from a nervous breakdown in the presence of his friend G. V., who happens to be steeped in magical lore. The narrative is written in an almost unbearably mannered purist style, which was undoubtedly a deliberate stylistic attempt to imitate Poe’s arabesque, grotesque aesthetic.
For readers, critics, and translators of Cavafy, this prose narrative serves as a rather tantalizing parable that effectively dramatizes (albeit rather cryptically) a panic of some sort—quite possibly Cavafy’s own philological panic57 regarding his prose “baggage.” The description of the specter in the story is curious: “I fell asleep again at around one-thirty, at which time it seemed to me that a man of medium height and around forty years of age entered my room. He was wearing fairly worn out black clothes and a straw hat. On his left hand he wore a ring set with a very large emerald. This struck me as being incongruous with the rest of his attire. … There was something strange about his eyes, a look at once sarcastic and sad” (2010, 87).58 One cannot resist the temptation to view this ghost as Cavafy’s doppelgänger—he has the straw hat that Forster famously attributes to him, as well as the shabby gentility and rings mockingly described by Timos Malanos.59 (This reading should not be taken as a validation of Petros Vlastos’s infamous categorization of Cavafy as a “Byzantine vampire,” a demeaning affront that nevertheless serves as a valuable gothic gloss to the story.) The very quintessential Cavafian type of an older man sitting in a café, this ghost desires an iron box that contains something precious (here one is reminded of Cavafy’s decadent vision of the stripping of the temple of katharevousa and the potential loss of a precious chest). Could this occult box be a displacement for Cavafy’s prose writings that on some psychic level haunted and tormented him? Might this buried chest (so curiously reminiscent of the buried iron box containing the Book of Thoth)60 express a repressed desire to acquire a hermetical euphuistic prose style that Cavafy so desperately sought but that evaded him his entire life? Certainly the story supports such an allegorical reading, fanciful though it might be. Ever controlling his reputation, it seems, from beyond the grave, here Cavafy haunts his only prose short story, seeking a mortal to give him an iron box that in effect constitutes some sort of posthumous interpretation, (p.55) validation, or perhaps even translation of his ill-fated prose. The story thus dramatizes his doomed quest for a prose style appropriate to his art and high creative standards.
Reading the story as an allegorical tale of Cavafy’s subliminal anxiety over his prose effectively synthesizes his many metaphoric references to his writings as hidden texts, abandoned baggage, and precious relics. Apropos of such metaphors of containment, it is curious to note that the first editor of Cavafy’s prose, George Papoutsakis (1963) suggestively cites a passage from Arthur Ransome’s study on Oscar Wilde, drawing a telling parallel to Cavafy by means of a metaphor of a locked casket. Ransome writes,
An artist is unable to do everything for us. He gives us his work as a locked casket. Sometimes the words are very simple and all the world have keys to fit; sometimes they are intricate and subtle, and the casket is only to be opened by a few, though all may taste imperfectly the precious essences distilling through the hinges. Sometimes, when our knowledge of an artist and of the conditions under which he wrote have been entirely forgotten, there are no keys, and the work of art remains a closed casket, like much early poetry, of which we can only say that it is cunningly made and that it has a secret.
Papoutsakis (1963, xi) opines that Cavafy’s work (by which he means the poetry) belongs to the second category—writings hermetically obscure in the modernist symbolist mode. Implied in Papoutsakis’s account is the hermeneutical hope that the prose texts he was presenting for the first time in 1963 would provide “keys for the few” critics able to appreciate them by applying them to critical interpretations of the poems. I suggest, however, that the third category—the closed casket for which there is no key—serves as an equally apt metaphor for Cavafy’s prose—the paradox presented to the readers of a poet of world literature whose prose has remained undervalued, untranslated, and, relatively speaking, locked, boxed, and buried for decades. The mysterious box is to be “retrieved,” as it were, by a mortal (a sympathetic reader, shrewd critic, or adept translator) and handed back to the poet’s now famous specter.
The inauspicious fate of Cavafy’s prose calls to mind Baudelaire’s comment on Poe’s tales, which he felt were ill received in America, prompting him to associate the term “ill fortune” with them. (The term also applies to Baudelaire’s own poetry and illustrates the accursed predicament of (p.56) the damned poet-painter of modern life.) Indeed, this concept informs the concluding lines of Baudelaire’s sonnet “Le Guignon” (“Ill Fortune”), which offer a paradoxical semblance of solace to the poet whose writings are underappreciated: “But sleeping lies many a gem / In dark, unfathomed caves, Far from the probes of men; // And many a flower waves / And wastes its sweet perfumes / In desert solitudes” (1998, 31). Once again, the topos of entombed somnolence serves as an apt metaphor for the precious rarefied poem-story that, like a flower or precious gem, lies out of vulgar reach of the probing mob.
Cavafy’s decadent prose poems are clearly attempts to imitate Baudelaire’s prose pieces, hybrid compositions that subtly incorporate elements of art criticism into his creative writing in the tradition of transposition d’art. This decadent, Parisian, salon-based impressionism—an almost alchemical interchangeability between poem and picture—will find its way into many of Cavafy’s poems and manifest itself as a full-fledged pictorial poetics, as will be seen in the following chapter.
(1.) See Clements (1985, 76). She writes, “The most striking feature in an account of Baudelaire’s posthumous literary life is that he has by so many poets, novelists, and critics of art and literature been regarded as a progenitor” (3).
(2.) Cavafy’s poem “The City” may be read as an inversion of the flânerie dynamic whereby the city haunts the flâneur rather than the flâneur the city. See Turner (2003), in which he notes the connection between flânerie and cruising: “Cruising is a practice that exploits the ambivalence (p.210) of the modern city, and in doing so, ‘queers’ the totalizing narratives of modernity, in particular, flânerie” (46).
(3.) The year 1891 marks the date of Cavafy’s official affiliation with the Alexandrian newspaper Τηλέγραφος (Telegraph). Prior to this, he had published two brief articles in the newspaper Κωνσταντινούπολις (Constantinople): “Το Κοράλλιον υπό μυθολογικήν έποψιν” (“Coral from a Mythological Perspective,” 1886) and “Οι απάνθρωποι φίλοι των ζώων” (“The Inhumane Friends of Animals,” 1886.
(4.) On the prose poem as a precursor of free verse, see Clive Scott, “The Prose Poem and Free Verse” (1976, 349–368). Cavafy’s poetry was initially criticized as unpoetic by his initial detractors, who took their cue from his rival Kostis Palamas.
(5.) Edward Kaplan writes, “Realistically speaking, Beauty can only alleviate anxiety or ennui—not cure it—as it sanctifies the possible” (1990, 9). The opposite of spleen or ennui, the ideal is related to beauty in Baudelaire’s poetic universe. As Jonathan Culler notes, “The ideal is … most generally whatever provokes effort and aspiration, including the world of ideal forms and beauty itself. It is thus both opposed to spleen and, in its inaccessibility, a cause of spleen” (1998, xvii). See also Jamison (2001), who writes, “Most famously, Les Fleurs du mal records his creative travels between opposing poles he styles ‘Spleen’ and ‘Idéal’: between the modern and classical, the temporal and eternal, the venal and immaculate muse (256).
(8.) Cavafy reiterates this principle in his own “Philosophical Scrutiny” years later, which reveals how enduring this poetic philosophy would remain:
(9.) Elizabeth Prettejohn traces this trajectory from Poe through Gautier, Baudelaire, Swinburne, Pater and Wilde:
(10.) On the centrality of Baudelaire’s sonnet for symbolist poetry, see Balakian (1977, chap. 3). Cavafy’s translation of the sonnet is analyzed in detail by Dimitris Pandelodemos, who points out (p.211) that the translation preserves neither the sonnet structure nor the rhyme scheme of the original (1983, 1501). See also Tsoutsoura (1993, 84), who argues that the translation is faithful and original. For Cavafy’s relation to aesthetic poetry, see Jusdanis (1987, 33–37).
(11.) The term “mystic nourishment” (le mystique aliment) comes from Baudelaire’s poem “L’Ennemi” (“The Enemy”).
(12.) See Heintzelman (1956) on Legros’s illustrations of Poe. Baudelaire describes these in “Painters and Etchers” as “those few pages in which Edgar Poe finds himself translated with a harsh and simple majesty” (1965, 220).
(13.) In his review “Exposition Universelle, 1855,” Baudelaire writes, “The poor man is so Americanized by zoocratic and industrial philosophers that he has lost all notion of the differences which characterize the phenomena of the physical and moral world, the natural and the supernatural” (1964, 83).
(14.) As Margueritte Murphy writes, Baudelaire takes issue “with the broader conception of history behind the contemporary notion of progress, for which technological innovation and industrial production serve as bellwethers. Baudelaire admits that progress can occur—specifically, in questions of morality, in the careers of individual artists from year to year, in the price and quality of goods. But he objects to the belief in the inevitability of progress, seeing this as both a constraint on liberty and a delusion” (2008, 33).
(15.) In his essay “Shakespeare on Life” (1891), Cavafy writes “I do not care for excessive dogmatism” (2010, 27).
(16.) The Baudelairean dimension of “Builders” was noted by George Savidis (1991, 116). The poem was criticized by the editor of the Attic Museum for its French style of enjambment (Cavafy 1983, 94). In his unfinished poem “In the Sixth or Seventh Century” (1927*), Cavafy’s speaker expresses an interest in the status of Hellenism in Alexandria before the onslaught of the Arabs and boasts that it is only natural that those who reestablished Greek speech in the city should be interested in such matters. The fact that this is no longer the case less than a century after the poem was written is an example of Cavafy’s ironic sensibility, which seemingly operates both proleptically and retroactively.
(17.) On the particular reading tastes and demographics of this audience, see the important studies of Papaleontiou (1998), Daskalopoulos (1990), and Droulia (2005). The Greek poet Tellos Agras notes that “translation constitutes an organic part of our literature” (Papaleontiou 1998, 13).
(19.) Cavafy’s failure to achieve this is noted by George Savidis, who describes the purist prose as hopelessly “stiff” (1987, 183). Cavafy’s encyclopedic speaking style remained one of his dominant character traits, as Timos Malanos argues in his introductory note to Καβαφικά Αυτοσχόλια (Cavafy’s Self-Comments) (Lechonitis 1942, 11–12).
(22.) Cavafy composed numerous notes to John expressing his disapproval over various word choices selected for the translations. His glacial pace in supplying E. M. Forster with poems and his ultimate withholding of authorization for the Hogarth Press’s proposed English edition of the poems is one of the great enigmas of the poet’s promotional behavior. See the introduction to Jeffreys (2009).
(23.) On Dimaras’s term “δημοσιολόγος/demosiologos,” see Ourania Polykandrioti (2005, 170). Emmanuel Roidis and Dimitris Vikelas were both Greek men of letters whose prose style and cosmopolitan tone certainly influenced Cavafy. Dimiroulis (2005, 48) notes that Roidis was considered a foreigner and outsider by many Greek critics who took issue with his urbane sarcasm, polemical antiromanticism, and heretical pessimism, qualities that would later become Cavafy’s own.
(p.212) (24.) See Stillman (1891), a much-discussed essay in which he divides men into “journalists and eternalists, ephemera and immortals” and criticizes journalism for having become “an agency for collecting, condensing and assimilating the trivialities of the entire human existence.” He warns young men who desire to follow literature that “our present journalism” is “the enemy” of all the “finer things”: “A noble literature implies the ambition of immortality, and the truth alone is immortal” (688). Stillman was an American painter, journalist, and photographer who served as a correspondent for the London Times and married Marie Spartali, part of the London Greek circle that included the Cavafy family.
(28.) See Sachinis (1981) on the influence of aestheticism on the Greek prose writers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Although absent from this study, Cavafy was similarly impacted by the same foreign influences that acted upon his Greek contemporaries, influences that included Poe, Baudelaire, Ruskin, Swinburne, Pater, Whistler, Huysmans, and Wilde.
(30.) Edward Kaplan (1990, 38) uses the terms “aesthetic fables,” “fables of the human condition,” and “fables of the artistic quest” to categorize Baudelaire’s prose poems, terms that apply equally to Cavafy’s prose poems.
(31.) “I will look upon these clothes and will remember the great celebration—which by then will be completely finished” (“Garments”).
(32.) It would not be an exaggeration to claim that the reclusive poet was distilling into his poetry “drop by drop” (to quote Seferis) the conscious cosmopolitanism he acquired during his apprentice years as a journalist; his present international appeal and growing global audience are clearly indebted to the journalistic demands made upon him by his bourgeois Levantine readership. During his mature phase, Cavafy surely sensed that he was writing for a world audience, a position explored by Damroch (2003) and Jusdanis (2003).
(39.) See George Savidis’s commentary on this unpublished essay, where he notes that the list made by Cavafy was implemented by the Educational Association of Egypt (1987, 218–219). Savidis has, to date, offered the most incisive and thorough readings of Cavafy’s prose, most of which appear in his two volumes of collected essays (1985, 1987).
(42.) As early as 1883, Cavafy expressed an interest in becoming a professional journalist, but he appears to have received discouraging advice from his family, namely his aunt Amalia Papou (Daskalopulos and Stasinopoulou 2001, 24). Although officially affiliated with the Telegraph from 1891, he began working as a paid employee at the Third Circle of Irrigation in 1889. The year 1901 marks the date of Cavafy’s last journalistic submission for the Telegraph.
(43.) Liddell ( 2000, 81). Liddell observes that in the Elgin Marble essays, “his attitude throughout is more ‘Philhellenic’ than anti-British—it is symptomatic of his growing Hellenism” (ibid.).
(45.) On Lucian and Greek performativity, see Goldhill (2002b). In his monograph The Invention of Prose (2002a, 12), Goldhill notes the sophistic rhetorical technique of displaying and showing off knowledge (apodeixis and epideixis), a strategy likewise employed by Cavafy in his journalistic writings. Cavafy was enamored of the sophists, especially their approach to language as art and artifice.
(46.) In what appears to be another curious coincidence, Moréas published his important document on symbolism—a letter to the Supplément littéraire of Figaro, which became the manifesto for the symbolist movement—in 1886, the year Cavafy published his first poems. Although a full consideration of the influence of Moréas on Cavafy is beyond the scope of this book, it is a topic that deserves additional exploration.
(49.) See note 30. Cavafy’s debt to Poe via Baudelaire is explored by Lavagnini (2003), Athanasopoulou (2003), and Katsigianni (2000). Athanasopoulou notes the prevalence of the doppelgänger in Poe’s work and offers a reading of “In Broad Daylight” based on Poe, interpreting the ghost as a double of Alexander A. (Katsigianni 2000, 663). See also Nanos Valaoritis (1983, 651), suggesting that Cavafy’s interest in Antiochus IV Epiphanes might have its source in Poe’s short story “Four Beasts in One: The Homo-Cameleopard.”
(50.) Rhonda Garelick notes the paradoxical social predicament of the flâneur: “Decadent Dandyism is paradoxical in that it turns sharply away from the external world while nonetheless being deeply aware of the new, changing and largely urban landscape” (1998, 43). On a related note, Kirsten Macleod (2006, 29–31) points out the connections between dilettantism and the decadent sensibility, connections applicable to Cavafy’s ambivalent feelings toward journalism in the 1890s. On the dialectical tension between journalism and decadence, see David Frisby (1994, 93, 95), who elaborates on Walter Benjamin’s assertion that “the social foundation of flânerie is journalism” and makes interesting connections between flânerie and the short prose form, gambling, hunting, detectives, and werewolves. Cavafy, it should be noted, penned an unfinished narrative on the subject of lycanthropy in 1882 that documents his early interest in issues of marginality. On Poe and the flâneur tradition, see Werner (2004).
(51.) As Rosemary Lloyd notes, “The word Baudelaire used for his feelings in early 1848 was intoxication, ivresse, a term he would take up again in a prose poem [“Enivrez-vous”] in which he urges his readers, if they do not want to be the martyred slaves of time, to remain always intoxicated, on wine, poetry or virtue as they choose” (2008, 77).
(52.) Cavafy’s piece echoes Baudelaire’s prose poem “La quelle est la Vraie?,” which concludes with the line “I found myself caught, perhaps forever, in the burial-place of the Ideal” (1989, 161).
(53.) The prose poem’s foregrounding of the voyage motif will later be refined in “Ithaka.”
(55.) Scott (1988, 116). As David Scott writes, “The poet, like the painter, was a maker of marks on the white page” (37). On the interchangeability of the prose poems and paintings, see Shattuck (1983, 29).
(57.) The panic could also be read as an illustration of Sedgwick’s gay gothic “homosexual panic” (1990, 189).
(p.214) (58.) The combination of gambling and ghosts foregrounded in the story recalls Baudelaire’s prose poem “Le Joueur généreux,” which involves an encounter between a “generous gambler” and the devil.
(60.) In the Book of Thoth, the scribe and magician Nefrekeptah is told by a priest that he might find the Book of Thoth (who is the Egyptian god of writing) in the middle of the Nile at Coptos, guarded by snakes and scorpions and a great serpent that cannot be killed. It is contained in an iron box, in which there is a wooden box, in which there is an ivory box, then an ebony, then a silver, and finally a golden box in which lies the Book of Thoth. On Cavafy’s connection to the esoteric movement, see Haas (1984). Khaled Fahmy notes that “the theme of hidden treasures was a common one in much of the popular literature of Egypt in the second half of the nineteenth century” (2004, 302). It should be noted that Cavafy possessed a copy of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, a book that foregrounds a perilous quest for treasure. Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” also involves a treasure hunt and the discovery of an iron-banded treasure chest containing gold and jewels.