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C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) is now considered by many to be the most original and influential Greek poet of this century. The qualities of his poetry that were unfashionable during his lifetime are the very ones that make his work endure: his sparing use of metaphor; his evocation of spoken rhythms and colloquialisms; his use of epigrammatic and dramatic modes; his aesthetic perfectionism; his frank treatment of homosexual themes; his brilliantly alive sense of history; and his commitment to Hellenism, coupled with an astute cynicism about politics.

The translations in Selected Poems are completely new. Realizing that Cavafy's language is closer to the spoken idiom than that of other leading Greek poets of his time, and that earlier translations have failed to capture the immediate, colloquial qualities of Cavafy's voice, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard have rendered his most significant and characteristic poems in a style and rhythm as natural and apt in English as the poet's is in Greek.

Originally published in 1972.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691619385
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 03/08/2015
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #1735
Pages: 112
Sales rank: 1,077,600
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Constantine Cavafy (1863—1933) was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents. He worked as a journalist and civil servant and only late in life began to find a receptive readership for his poems. A volume of his collected poetry was not published until after his death. Avi Sharon has taught classics and the humanities in New York, Boston, and Athens and has published translations in such journals as Partisan Review, Arion, and Dialogos.\

Read an Excerpt

Selected Poems

By C. P. Cavafy, Edmund Keeley, Philip Sherrard


Copyright © 1972 Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06228-0



    For some people there's a day
    when they have to come out with the great Yes
    or the great No. It's clear at once
    who has the Yes ready in him; and saying it,

    he goes on to find honor, strong in his conviction.
    He who refuses never repents. Asked again,
    he'd still say no. Yet that no — the right
    answer —
    defeats him the whole of his life.


    Honor to those who in the life they lead
    define and guard a Thermopylae.
    Never betraying what is right,
    consistent and just in all they do
    but showing pity also, and compassion;
    generous when they're rich, and when they're poor,
    still generous in small ways,
    still helping whenever they can;
    always speaking the truth
    yet without hating those who lie.

    And even more honor is due to them
    when they foresee (as many do foresee)
    that Ephialtis will turn up in the end,
    that the Medes will break through after all.


    He who hopes to grow in spirit
    will have to free himself from obedience and respect.
    He'll hold to some laws
    but he'll mostly violate
    both law and custom, and go beyond
    the established, inadequate norm.
    Sexual pleasure will have much to teach him.
    He won't be afraid of the destructive act:
    half the house will have to come down.
    This way he'll grow virtuously into wisdom.


    What are we waiting for, packed in the forum?

        The barbarians are due here today.

    Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
    Why have the senators given up legislating?

        Because the barbarians are coming today.
        What's the point of senators and their laws now?
        When the barbarians get here, they'll do the

    Why did our emperor set out so early
    to sit on his throne at the city's main gate,
    in state, wearing the crown?

        Because the barbarians are coming today
        and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
        He's even got a citation to give him,
        loaded with titles and imposing names.

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

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

    And why don't our distinguished orators push forward as
    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 bewilderment, this confusion?
    (How serious everyone looks.)
    Why are the streets and squares rapidly emptying,
    everyone going home so lost in thought?

        Because it's night and the barbarians haven't come.
        And some people just in from the border say
        there are no barbarians any longer.

    Now what's going to happen to us without them?
    The barbarians were a kind of solution.


    Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;
    our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
    We just begin to get somewhere,
    begin to gather a little strength,
    grow almost bold and hopeful,

    when something always comes up to stop us:
    Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
    and terrifies us with his violent shouting.

    Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
    We think we'll change our luck
    by being resolute and brave,
    so we move outside ready to fight.

    But when the great crisis comes,
    our boldness and resolution vanish;
    our spirit falters, collapses,
    and we scurry around the walls
    trying to save ourselves by running away.

    Yet we're sure to fail. Up there,
    high on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
    They're mourning the memory, the aura of our days.
    Priam and Hecuba mourn for us bitterly.


Not like a king but an actor he put on a gray cloak
instead of his royal one and secretly went away.

PLUTARCH, Life of Dimitrios

    When the Macedonians deserted him
    and showed they preferred Pyrrhos,
    noble King Dimitrios didn't behave
    — so it was said —
    at all like a king.
    He took off his golden robes,
    discarded his purple buskins,
    and quickly dressing himself
    in simple clothes, he slipped out —
    just like an actor who,
    the play over,
    changes his costume and goes away.


    But when he heard the women wailing,
    lamenting his sorry state —
    madam with her oriental gestures
    and her slaves with their barbarous Greek —
    the pride in his soul rose up,
    his Italian blood sickened with disgust
    and all he'd worshipped blindly till then —
    his wild Alexandrian life —
    now seemed dull and alien.
    And he said: "Stop wailing for me.
    It's all wrong, that kind of thing.
    You ought to be singing my praises
    for having been a great ruler,
    a man of wealth and glory.
    And if I'm down now, I haven't fallen humbly,
    but as a Roman conquered by a Roman."


    Eagles of coral
    adorn the ebony bed
    where Nero lies deep in sleep —
    callous, peaceful, and happy,
    robust in the vigor of his flesh
    and the full vitality of youth.

    But in the alabaster hall that keeps
    the ancient shrine of the Aenobarbi
    how restless the household gods!
    The little creatures tremble
    and try to hide their insignificant bodies.
    They've heard a frightening sound,
    a deadly sound coming up the stairs,
    iron footsteps that shake the staircase;
    and faint with fear, the miserable Lares
    scramble to the back of the shrine,
    shoving each other and stumbling,
    one little god falling over another,
    because they know what kind of sound that is,
    they recognize by now the footsteps of the Furies.


    You said: "I'll go to some other place, some other sea,
    find another city better than this one.
    Every move I make is doomed to come out wrong
    and my heart, like something dead, lies buried inside me.
    How long is my mind to wither away like this?
    Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
    I see the black ruin of my life, here,
    where IVe spent so many years — wasted, destroyed them

    You won't find some other place, some other sea.
    The city will follow you. And you'll walk
    the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhood,
    in these same houses watch yourself turn gray.
    You'll always end up in this city. Don't look for things
    there's no ship for you, no road out.
    Just as you've ruined your life here, in this small corner,
    you've destroyed it now everywhere in the world.


    Too bad that, cut out as you are
    for fine and noble things,
    this unfair fate of yours
    never gives you a chance, never provides what you want;
    that vulgar habits get in your way,
    pettiness and indifference.
    And how terrible the day you give in
    (the day you let go and give in)
    and take the road for Susa
    to find King Artaxerxes,
    who graciously places you in his court
    and offers you satrapies and things like that —
    things you don't want at all,
    though, despairingly, you accept them all the same.
    Your heart longs for something else, aches for other things:
    praise from the crowd and the Sophists,
    that hard-won, that priceless acclaim —
    the Agora, the theatre, the crowns of laurel.
    You can't get these from Artaxerxes,
    you'll never find these in the satrapy,
    and without them, what kind of life will you live?


    My soul, guard against pomp and glory.
    And if you can't curb your ambitions,
    at least pursue them hesitantly, cautiously.
    And the higher you go,
    the more searching and careful you need to be.

    And when you reach your summit, Caesar at last —
    when you assume the role of someone as great as that —
    be really careful as you go out into the street,
    a conspicuous man of power with your retinue;
    and should a certain Artemidoros
    come up to you out of the crowd, bringing a letter,
    and say hurriedly: "Read this right away.
    It's about you, and it's vitally important,"
    be sure to stop; be sure to put off
    all talk or business; be sure to keep clear
    of those who salute and bow to you
    (they can be seen later); let even
    the Senate itself wait — and find out at once
    what vital news Artemidoros has written down for you.


    Tortured by fear and suspicion,
    mind agitated, eyes alarmed,
    we invent ways out,
    plan how to avoid
    the inevitable danger that threatens us so terribly.
    And yet we're mistaken, there's a different danger ahead:
    the news was wrong
    (or we didn't hear it, or didn't get it right).
    Another disaster, one we never imagined,
    suddenly, violently, overwhelms us,
    and finding us unprepared — there's no time now —
    sweeps us away.


    At midnight, when suddenly you hear
    an invisible procession going past
    with exquisite music, voices,
    don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
    work gone wrong, your plans
    all proving deceptive — don't mourn them uselessly:
    as though long prepared, and full of courage,
    say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
    Above all, don't fool yourself, don't say
    it was a dream, that your ears deceived you:
    don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
    As though long prepared, and full of courage,
    as though natural in you who've been given this kind of city,
    go firmly to the window
    and listen with emotion,
    but not with the regret, the winnings of a coward,
    listen — your final pleasure — to the voices,
    to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
    and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.


    That we've broken their statues,
    that weVe driven them out of their temples
    doesn't mean at all that the gods are dead.
    O land of Ionia, they're still in love with you,
    their souls still keep your memory.
    When an August dawn wakes over you,
    the atmosphere is potent with their life
    and sometimes a young ethereal figure
    indistinct, in rapid flight,
    wings across your hills.


    When you set out for Ithaka
    pray that your road's a long one,
    full of adventure, full of discovery.
    Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
    angry Poseidon — don't be scared of them:
    you won't find things like that on your way
    as long as your thoughts are exalted,
    as long as a rare excitement
    stirs your spirit and your body.
    Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
    wild Poseidon — you won't encounter them
    unless you bring them along inside you,
    unless your soul raises them up in front of you.

    Pray that your road's a long one.
    May there be many a summer morning when —
    full of gratitude, full of joy —
    you come into harbors seen for the first time;
    may you stop at Phoenician trading centers
    and buy fine things,
    mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
    sensual perfumes of every kind,
    as many sensual perfumes as you can;
    may you visit numerous Egyptian cities
    to fill yourself with learning from the wise.

    Keep Ithaka always in mind.
    Arriving there is what you're destined for.
    But don't hurry the journey at all.
    Better if it goes on for years
    so you're old by the time you reach the island,
    wealthy with all you've gained on the way,
    not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

    Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
    Without her you wouldn't have set out.
    She hasn't anything else to give.

    And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
    Wise as you'll have become, and so experienced,
    you'll have understood by then what an Ithaka means.


    Make sure the engraving is done skillfully.
    The expression serious and majestic.
    The crown preferably somewhat narrow:
    I don't like the broad Parthian type.
    The inscription, as usual, in Greek:
    Nothing excessive or pompous —
    we don't want the proconsul to take it the wrong way;
    he's always smelling things out and reporting back to
    Rome —
    but of course properly respectful.
    Something very special on the other side:
    a discus-thrower, young, good-looking.
    Above all I urge you to see to it
    (Sithaspis, for God's sake, don't let them forget)
    that after "King" and "Savior",
    they add "Philhellene" in elegant characters.
    Now don't try to be clever
    with your "where are the Greeks?" and "what Hellenism
    here behind Zagros, out beyond Phraata?"
    Since so many others more barbarian than ourselves
    choose to inscribe it, we'll inscribe it too.
    And besides, don't forget that sometimes
    sophists do come to us from Syria,
    and versifiers, and other triflers.
    So we're not, I think, un-Hellenized.


    The Alexandrians had gathered
    to see Cleopatra's children,
    Kaisarion and his younger brothers,
    Alexander and Ptolemy,
    who'd been taken out to the Gymnasium for the first time,
    to be proclaimed kings there
    before a brilliant array of soldiers.

    Alexander: they declared him
    king of Armenia, Midia, and the Parthians.
    Ptolemy: they declared him
    king of Cilicia, Syria, and Phoenicia.
    Kaisarion was standing in front of the others,
    dressed in pink silk,
    on his chest a bunch of hyacinths,
    his belt a double row of sapphires and amethysts,
    his shoes tied with white ribbons
    prinked with rose-colored pearls.
    They declared him greater than his brothers,
    they declared him King of Kings.

    The Alexandrians knew of course
    that this was just talk and show-business.
    But the day was warm and poetic,
    the sky a pale blue,
    the Alexandrian Gymnasium
    a triumphant artistic success,
    the courtiers wonderfully sumptuous,
    Kaisarion all grace and beauty
    (Cleopatra's son, blood of the Lagids);
    and the Alexandrians thronged to the festival,
    and were enthusiastic, and shouted acclamations
    in Greek, and Egyptian, and some in Hebrew,
    charmed by the lovely spectacle —
    though of course they knew what all this was worth,
    what empty words they really were, these kingships.


    An old man — used up, bent,
    crippled by time and abuse —
    slowly walks along the narrow street.
    But as he goes inside his house to hide
    the shambles of his old age, his thoughts fix
    on the share in youth that still belongs to him.

    His verse is now quoted by young men.
    His images come before their lively eyes.
    Their healthy sensual minds,
    their shapely well-knit bodies
    stir to his vision of the beautiful.


    Even if you can't shape your life the way you want,
    at least try as much as you can
    not to cheapen it totally
    by too much contact with the world
    and all its traffic and talk.

    Don't degrade it by dragging it along,
    taking it around and exposing it so often
    to the daily silliness
    of meetings and parties
    until it comes to seem unbearable,
    no longer your own.


    Well, we're nearly there, Hermippos.
    Day after tomorrow, it seems — that's what the captain said.
    At least we're sailing our seas,
    the waters of Cyprus, of Syria and Egypt,
    cherished waters of our own countries.
    Why so quiet? Ask your heart:
    didn't you too feel happier
    the further we got from Greece?
    What's the point of fooling ourselves?
    That, of course, wouldn't be properly Hellenic.

    It's time we admitted the truth:
    we're Greeks also — what else are we? —
    but with Asiatic tastes and feelings,
    tastes and feelings
    sometimes repugnant to Hellenism.

    It isn't right, Hermippos, for us philosophers
    to be like some of our petty kings
    (remember how we laughed at them
    when they used to come to our lectures?)
    who through their showy Hellenified exteriors
    (Macedonian exteriors, naturally)
    let a bit of Arabia peep out now and then,
    a bit of Midia they can't keep back.
    And what comic artifice the fools used
    trying to cover it up!

    No, that's not at all right for us.
    For Greeks like us that kind of pettiness won't do.
    We mustn't be ashamed
    of the Syrian and Egyptian blood in our veins:
    we should honor it, we should glory in it.


    It goes on being Alexandria still. Just walk a bit
    along its straight road ending at the Hippodrome
    and you'll see palaces and monuments that will amaze you.
    Whatever war-damage it's suffered,
    however much smaller it's grown,
    it's still a wonderful city.
    And then, what with excursions and books
    and various kinds of study, time does go by.
    In the evenings we meet on the seafront,
    the five of us (all, naturally, under fictitious names)
    and some of the few other Greeks
    still left in the city.
    Sometimes we discuss church affairs
    (the people here seem to lean toward Rome)
    and sometimes literature.
    The other day we read some lines by Nonnos:
    what imagery, what rhythm, what diction and harmony!
    In our enthusiasm, how we admired the Panopolitan.
    So the days go by, and our stay here
    isn't unpleasant because, naturally,
    it's not going to last forever.
    We've had good news: whether
    something is happening now in Smyrna, or whether
    in April our friends decide to move from Epiros,
    our plans are definitely working out, and we'll easily
    overthrow Basil.
    And when we do, at last our turn will come.


    If you're really one of the chosen few,
    watch how you attain your eminence.
    No matter how much you're acclaimed, how much
    the cities praise your achievements
    in Italy and Thessaly,
    whatever honors
    your admirers decree for you in Rome,
    your joy, your triumph won't last,
    nor will you feel superior — hardly superior! —
    when in Alexandria Theodotos brings you,
    on a blood-stained tray,
    miserable Pompey's head.

    And don't be too sure that in your life —
    restricted, regulated, prosaic —
    spectacular and horrible things like that don't happen.
    Maybe this very moment Theodotos —
    bodiless, invisible —
    is carrying into some neighbor's tidy house
    an equally repulsive head.


Excerpted from Selected Poems by C. P. Cavafy, Edmund Keeley, Philip Sherrard. Copyright © 1972 Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

  • Frontmatter, pg. i
  • Foreword, pg. v
  • Acknowledgments, pg. vii
  • Other Books by the Translators, pg. viii
  • Contents, pg. ix
  • Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifiuto, pg. 3
  • Thermopylae, pg. 4
  • Growing in Spirit, pg. 5
  • Waiting for the Barbarians, pg. 6
  • Trojans, pg. 8
  • King Dimitrios, pg. 9
  • Antony's Ending, pg. 10
  • The Footsteps, pg. 11
  • The City, pg. 12
  • The Satrapy, pg. 13
  • The Ides of March, pg. 14
  • Things Fulfilled, pg. 15
  • The God Abandons Antony, pg. 16
  • Ionic, pg. 17
  • Ithaka, pg. 18
  • Philhellene, pg. 20
  • Alexandrian Kings, pg. 21
  • Very Seldom, pg. 23
  • As Much as You Can, pg. 24
  • Returning from Greece, pg. 25
  • Exiles, pg. 26
  • Theodotos, pg. 27
  • He Swears, pg. 28
  • Morning Sea, pg. 29
  • Orophernis, pg. 30
  • The Battle of Magnesia, pg. 32
  • Manuel Komninos, pg. 34
  • The Distress of Selefkidis, pg. 35
  • For Ammonis, Who Died at 29, in 610, pg. 36
  • One of Their Gods, pg. 37
  • Half an Hour, pg. 38
  • Kaisarion, pg. 39
  • Body, Remember . . ., pg. 40
  • Nero's Respite, pg. 41
  • Envoys from Alexandria, pg. 42
  • Aimilianos Monai, Alexandrian, A.D. 628-655, pg. 43
  • The Afternoon Sun, pg. 44
  • Of the Jews (A.D. 50), pg. 45
  • Of Dimitrios Sotir (162-150 B.C.), pg. 46
  • If Actually Dead, pg. 48
  • Young Men of Sidon (A.D. 400), pg. 49
  • Dareios, pg. 50
  • Anna Komnina, pg. 52
  • An Exiled Byzantine Nobleman who Composes Verses, pg. 53
  • Alexander Valas' Favorite, pg. 54
  • Dimaratos, pg. 55
  • From the School of the Renowned Philosopher, pg. 57
  • Julian Seeing Contempt, pg. 58
  • Epitaph of Antiochos, King of Kommagini, pg. 59
  • In Alexandria, 31 B . C, pg. 60
  • John Kantakuzinos Triumphs, pg. 61
  • Of Colored Glass, pg. 62
  • The Twenty-Fifth Year of His Life, pg. 63
  • Kleitos' Illness, pg. 64
  • In a Township of Asia Minor, pg. 65
  • A Great Procession of Priests and Laymen, pg. 66
  • Julian and the Antiochians, pg. 67
  • Two Young Men, 23 to 24 Years Old, pg. 68
  • A Young Poet in His Twenty-Fourth Year, pg. 69
  • In Sparta, pg. 70
  • In a Large Greek Colony, 200 B.C., pg. 71
  • A Prince from Western Libya, pg. 73
  • Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340, pg. 74
  • Alexander Jannaios and Alexandra, pg. 77
  • Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians, pg. 78
  • He Asked About the Quality, pg. 79
  • To Have Taken the Trouble, pg. 80
  • In the Year 200 B . C, pg. 82
  • On the Outskirts of Antioch, pg. 84
  • Notes, pg. 86
  • Biographical Note, pg. 92
  • Reviews, pg. 99

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