Likely Stories: The Complete Poems of Cavafy by C.P. Cavafy

Sep 5, 2019

Excellent collection of poetry by the greatest Greek poet.


I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

C.P. Cavafy is widely considered the most distinguished Greek poet of the twentieth century. He was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt.  He died in 1933.  His book is the Complete Poems of Cavafy.  Of the many poets I have reviewed, few match the power, the beauty and the elegance of Cavafy.  About a third of the way in this collection, I gave up marking my favorites, because almost every poem is worthy of a spot in this collection. 

Here is a sample of his work.  “An Old Man” In the inner room of the noisy café / an old mam sits bent over a table; / a newspaper before him, no companion beside him // And in the scorn of his miserable old age, / he meditates how little he enjoyed the years / when he had strength, the art of the word, and good looks. // He knows he has aged much, he is aware of it, he sees it, / and yet the time when he was young seems like / yesterday.  How short a time, how short a time. // And he ponders how Wisdom had deceived him, / and how he always trusted her—what folly!-- / the liar who would say, ‘Tomorrow.  You have ample time. // He recalls impulses he curbed, and how much / joy he sacrificed.  Every lost chance / now mocks his senseless prudence. // …But with so much thinking and remembering / the old man reels.  And he dozes off / bent over the tables of the café.  (7).  I discovered this poem in the days I was preparing for retirement.

Many of Cavafy’s poems are direct references to the ancient Greeks.  “Thermopylae” “Honor to those who in their lives / are committed and guard their Thermopylae. / Never stirring from duty; / just and upright in all their deeds, / but with pity and compassion too; / generous when they are rich, and when / they are poor, again a little generous, / again helping as much as they are able; always speaking the truth, / but without rancor for those who lie. // And they merit greater honor / when they foresee (and many do foresee) / that Ephialtes will finally appear, / and in the end the Medes will go though.” (9).

In an excerpt from one of the longer poems, Cavafy wrote, “What are we waiting for, assembled in the public square? // The barbarians are to arrive today. // Why such inaction in the Senate? / Why do the Senators sit and pass no laws? // Because the barbarians are to arrive today. / What further laws can the Senators pass? / When the barbarians come the will make the laws. // Why did our emperor wake up so early. / and sit at the principal gate of the city, / on the throne, in state, wearing his crown? // Because the barbarians are to arrive today.” (18).  This one strikes me as rather relevant these days. 

Lastly, Cavafy writes, in “The Horses of Achilles.”  “When they saw that Patroclus was slain, / who had been so stalwart, and strong, and young, / the horses of Achilles started to weep, / their immortal nature was indignant / at the sight of this work of death.” (24).

These great, heroic poems will inspire and move the reader.  The Complete Works of Cavafy by C.P. Cavafy is worthy of any reader's attention. 5 Stars

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!