C.P. Cavafy – “Things impolitic and dangerous”

C.P. Cavafy (April 29, 1863 – April 29, 1933) the most distinguished and highly influential modern Greek poet, who never lived in Greece, whose work had been ridiculed and rejected early in the last century by the Athenian literati, then almost forgotten by Greece until publication of an anthology of his poems in 1935, two years after his death. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt, which he first left at age nine after his father died, and his mother moved their large brood to Liverpool so his elder brothers could run the family import business, a time when Cavafy learned English and discovered Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Oscar Wilde. These years influenced his choice of the Anglicized “Cavafy” as his pen name. When he was sixteen, the business failed, and the family returned, in debt-ridden gentility, to the Greek community in Alexandria. He was exiled again when he was nineteen, because his mother wisely removed the family from Alexandria, to the home of her parents in Constantinople during the increasing tension between Egypt and Great Britain over Egyptian nationalism. The British bombarded Alexandria in June of 1882. Their home in Alexandria was destroyed during the bombardment, and most of Cavafy’s early writing was lost. After his return from Constantinople, Cavafy worked in several jobs, then took a permanent position in the Irrigation Department of the Ministry of Public Works. His British superiors valued his excellent English. He would work there for thirty years, and was the assistant director of the department when he retired. Cavafy was homosexual. He had affairs but no love that lasted. Most of his erotic poetry was never published in his lifetime. Poet and Bureaucrat, Hellenic yet Cosmopolitan, he was as contradictory as the country of his family’s origins. Cavafy died of cancer on his birthday in 1933. His tombstone in the Greek Orthodox Cemetery in Alexandria bears a single word epitaph: Poet.

“Things impolitic and dangerous” comes from Cavafy’s poem “Julian in Nicomedia” which refers to the Emperor Julian, who was raised in Christianity, but was known as Julian the Apostate, because as Emperor he rejected Christianity, and tried but failed to restore paganism to the Eastern Roman Empire. Not to be confused with the Orthodox Church Holy Martyr Julian of Nicomedia, who refused to renounce Christianity, and was hacked into pieces which were burned. Cavafy’s work is full of these ironic connections.

In 1904, Cavafy wrote one of his best-known poems, “Waiting for the Barbarians” which still  sizzles and stings, eerily topical, well over a hundred years later. To read his poem click:

Waiting for the Barbarians

by C.P. Cavafy

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
The barbarians are due here today.
Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?
Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
                What laws can the senators make now?
                Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate
on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?

     Because the barbarians are coming today
                and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
                He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
                replete with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
and rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

                Because the barbarians are coming today
                and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators come forward as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

                Because the barbarians are coming today
                and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

                Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
                And some who have just returned from the border say
                there are no barbarians any longer.

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

“Waiting for the Barbarians” from C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard,.edited by George Savidis. (1992 Revised Edition) – Princeton University Press

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Nona Blyth Cloud has lived and worked in the Los Angeles area for over 50 years, spending much of that time commuting on the 405 Freeway. After Hollywood failed to appreciate her genius for acting and directing, she began a second career managing non-profits, from which she has retired. Nona has now resumed writing whatever comes into her head, instead of reports and pleas for funding. She lives in a small house overrun by books with her wonderful husband.
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