Today is the first of two days devoted to the poetry of the great Alexandrian Greek poet C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), newly translated by Daniel Mendelsohn. Though many readers will know Mendelsohn as a literary critic and the author of The Lost, he is also a classicist who has given us both a new Collected Poems of Constantine Cavafy and a revelatory volume entitled The Unfinished Poems (about which more tomorrow). Together, the books constitute a major literary event, providing the material for us to appreciate anew, or perhaps for the first time, the achievement of this beloved poet. These new translations are unprecedented in their ability to capture the sensuous rhymes, rich assonances, and strong rhythms of the original Greek, while the accompanying Introduction and Notes situate the works in a historical, literary, and biographical context. Today, in the spirit of Mendelsohn’s project to make a deeper understanding of Cavafy accessible to all, we offer two poems from Collected: Cavafy’s “Voices,” along with the poem that was its precursor, “Sweet Voices,” with Mendelsohn’s commentary on the poet’s process. (For those of you celebrating Passover tonight, “Voices” is an appropriate reading for the seder, in its invocation of those who’ve come before us.)
Mendelsohn explains, “Cavafy underwent a radical artistic transformation during the decade from around 1894 to 1904—the year of the ruthless ‘Philosophical Scrutiny’ to which he submitted both himself and his poems, which resulted in a significant break with the past and the gateway to his great mature style. Thanks to the poet’s habit of constantly rewriting and revising his work, we have a thrilling glimpse into the nature of that metamorphosis. Compare, for instance, the 1894 poem ‘Sweet Voices’—a work the poet later repudiated—and its final, 1904 incarnation, ‘Voices’: a comparison that shows us the poet paring down the prettiness and stripping away the sentiment of the earlier poem in order to achieve a more concentrated emotional effect. First, he abandons the rhymes and the gentle cadences of the meter of the earlier version; far more important—and far more illuminating for our understanding of Cavafy’s evolution—he has jettisoned all of the cloying adjectives and adverbs of the early version (‘sweeter,’ ‘mournfully,’ ‘melancholic,’ ‘feeble,’ ‘precious,’ etc.). The tersely effective final version retains only two adjectives (‘imagined,’ ‘beloved’), but they are all he needs to make his point about loss, love, and memory.”
Those voices are the sweeter which have fallen
forever silent, mournfully
resounding only in the heart that sorrows.
In dreams the melancholic voices come,
timorous and humble,
and bring before our feeble memory
the precious dead, whom the cold cold earth
conceals; for whom the mirthful
daybreak never shines, nor springtimes blossom.
Melodious voices sigh; and in the soul
our life’s first poetry
sounds — like music, in the night, that’s far away.
Imagined voices, and beloved, too,
of those who died, or of those who are
lost unto us like the dead.
Sometimes in our dreams they speak to us;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.
And with their sound for a moment there return
sounds from the first poetry of our life—
like music, in the night, far off, that fades away.
Listen to Daniel Mendelsohn reading Cavafy’s “The City.”
Meet Daniel Mendelsohn in New York City on April 13, and in Oakland, CA on May 14.
Purchase a signed edition of Collected Poems.