“Something very extraordinary happens.” These are the words of George Seferis, another great Greek poet, referring in a 1946 lecture to Constantine Cavafy—or rather, referring to the remarkable transformation in Cavafy’s poetry that took place between the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. In the 1890s, Cavafy was publishing flowery Belle Epoque verse in journals and literary magazines that Seferis rightly described as “ordinary and lacking in any great distinction.” Ten years later, he had stopped publishing altogether—and, more to the point, had begun to write great poems. If you love Cavafy, the great question is this: What was the “something extraordinary” that happened during those crucial ten crucial years?Luckily for us, it happens that Cavafy sometimes rewrote early published poems, and would publish the rewrite, so that we have both versions. The difference between the early work and its later incarnation opens a marvelous window into his creative process. The transformation of one poem in particular gives us a glimpse of something—well, extraordinary. Here is an 1894 poem called “Sweet Voices”:
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.
Cavafy composed this poem in 1893, at the age of 30, and published it a year later. It is a lovely, moody thing, with the lilting assonances and end-rhymes (which I tried to convey in my translation: mournfully/fallen, come/humble, earth/mirthful), and with its seductive array of modifiers, as pastel and creamy as a plate of Ladurée macarons: “sweet,” “mournful,” “melancholic,” “timorous,” “humble,” “feeble,” “precious,” “cold,” “mirthful,” “melodious.”
What has to happen to turn this perfectly nice lyric about sorrow into a great poem about death? In a word, death itself. Between the late 1880s and the time he wrote that poem, death had begun to flirt with Constantine Cavafy. His two closest friends died in the late 1880s, both in their 20s, and his brother Peter was dead in 1891, also young. After that, death stalked the poet like a crazed lover: his grandfather died, a favorite uncle died, his adored mother died in 1899, his brother George was dead in 1900, his brother Aristides in 1902. By the time he was 40, death had taken most of his family and his closest friends.
Can we really wonder that, in that year of 1903, Cavafy subjected all his previous work to a stringent examination that he called a “Philosophical Scrutiny,” determined to strip from his verse what he impatiently referred to as “flagrant inconsistencies, illogical possibilities, ridiculous exaggeration”—just as death had stripped so much from him, laid him bare? Can we help speculating that, during those years of his 30s—when he had to wait until his mother was asleep after dinner so he might sneak out of the house at night to seek pleasure in the arms of other men—the inconsistencies, the unbearable illogic, the ridiculous falsehoods that he sought to expunge were not only those he saw in his verse?
We cannot, of course, ever really know. What we can see—thanks to the window opened by his rewriting of the 1894 poem in 1903—is a poet who has learned to lose things, too: a poet who has learned how to trust himself. Here, then, is “Voices,” Cavafy’s 1904 revision of “Sweet Voices”—and indeed, the elision of the adjective in the original title tells you everything you need to know about what the poet had come to understand about the sorrows and the gifts the dead really leave us:
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.
Every adjective, every adverb in the earlier version has been stripped away—with the exception of the only two modifiers that count, in the end, when we think about our dead: “imagined” and “beloved.”
Like the poem itself, so too the process Constantine Cavafy had to undergo in order to become great enough to write it: which is to say, “something extraordinary.”