The Barbarians Arrive Today C. P. Cavafy, translated by Evan Jones – review

‘Traditore traduttore.’ All translations involve distortion, dilution or both, and good translations of great poetry tease us with the desire to get closer to the original than any one version can bring us. Evan Jones’s The Barbarians Arrive Today gives all the canonical poems and a large number of unpublished ones (Jones calls them ‘hidden’) in English translation only, together with nine prose pieces. It’s a valuable supplement to existing translations, for those who already know Cavafy, and a good point of entry for those who don’t. There are masterstrokes in it that throw a brighter light on particular poems than any other versions I’ve seen. There are inevitably disappointments, but a number of his versions will become my ‘go to’ poetic translations. Unfortunately you have to read quite far into the book before reaching these.

It’s in the poems with (for Cavafy) contemporary settings that Jones most fully comes into his own. ‘He Planned to Read’, ‘He Asked About the Quality’, ‘Two Young Men, Aged 23 or 24’ ‘The Street’ and others give brief, thrillingly vivid glimpses of moments of overwhelming sexual desire or dazed fulfilment. They share an extreme sense of transience, even if the moment of loss that implicitly haunts them lies in an unimagined future. One where Jones scores a particular triumph is ‘The Bandage’. In this, the speaker recalls a visit by a man with a bandaged shoulder. He says that when this visitor reached for a photograph on a high shelf the bandage came loose, and the wound bled. The speaker retied the bandage, taking his time because he liked the sight of the blood. After the visitor had left, the speaker found a bit of bloody dressing on the floor and pressed it to his lips for a long time. Meticulously, almost pedantically detailing these actions and the visitor’s apparent lie about how he came by the injury, Cavafy builds up a powerful sense of actively suppressed feelings which demand poetic release. Jones’s masterstroke comes in the final line. Keeley and Sherrard translate this tamely and vaguely as ‘the blood of love against my lips’, Mendelsohn as ‘the blood of love upon my lips’ but Jones as ‘the blood of longing on my lips’. With the word ‘longing’ the poem’s implicit drama comes into sharper focus and finds explosive release. The last line resonates and lingers in the mind, and – as a great last line should – makes us replay the whole poem in our imaginations again and again.

Against transience we have memory. At its most basic, there’s the involuntary memory of the body, described in ‘Return’. Jones’s translation of this beautifully intertwines lyrical symmetries with the more irregular cadences of urgent speech:

Return often and take me, the loveliest
sensations return and take me –
when memory of another’s body awakens
and an aging passion runs through the blood;
when lips and skin remember,
and hands feel as if they touch again.

Return often and take me in the night,
when lips and skin remember …

In its very nature as a prayer for and evocation of involuntary memory, this poem goes beyond such memory, becoming an instance of that memorializing power of art that meant so much to Cavafy.

Jones’s book is less useful as a way in to the historical poems than to the contemporary ones. This is partly because of the lack of notes. Cavafy was steeped in Greek history and wrote about it in a way that assumes knowledge few non-Greek readers will have. One example is the poem titled ‘Aemilianos Monae, Alexandrian, 628 – 655 A. D.’ Aemilianos speaks the first eight lines, telling us he’ll craft ‘an impressive suit of armour’ out of words and body language, hiding his weakness, fear, traumas and vulnerability from ‘vile men’.  Four lines by another speaker call this bluster, tell us that Aemilianos died in Sicily at twenty-seven and wonder whether he ever did craft that armour. We don’t need to know more than the poem tells us for a certain pathos to come through, or to see the typical Cavafian preoccupation with vain intentions. However, we probably wonder why Cavafy specified that Aemilianos was Alexandrian and died in Sicily. The answer is in his dates. The Arabs conquered Alexandria and the Hellenistic kingdoms of the Middle East in 642 AD, when Aemilianos was fourteen. Knowing this sharpens the poignancy of his boast and fate. We see him as an exile or refugee whose fear of humiliation leads him to cultivate a self-protective image, and we see the irony of his choosing the metaphor of ‘armour’ to describe it. We also see his representative function: his poem marks the end of the Hellenistic world in the Middle East. Jones places it in a section called ‘Portraits and Memorials’, which ignores this representative function, but the lack of historical background also stops us seeing clearly the kind of person it portrays.

Lack of contextual knowledge also limits understanding of the much more important ‘In 200 B.C.’ This begins with a quotation, printed as an epigraph by Jones: ‘Alexander, son of Philip and all the Greeks excluding the Lakedaimonians…’ The quotation is from a phrase that Plutarch tells us Alexander the Great caused to be inscribed on booty from his conquests when he sent it back to Greece. The Lakedaimonians – the Spartans – had refused to accompany his great expedition because, as Jones puts it,

                                    A countrywide
campaign without a Spartan in command –
who would fear that?

The longish first stanza considers the Spartan point of view, at first seeming to embrace it as a natural one for the foremost military power of the classical Greek world. Then two shorter stanzas draw the consequences. Pride in past supremacy has led the Spartans to become a backwater in the next phase of Greek history, not participating in Alexander’s crushing defeat of Persia at Granicus, Issus and Erbil or the creation of the great new world of Hellenistic culture with its Greek-ruled kingdoms in Egypt, Syria and Persia:

Exclude the Lakedaimonians from Granicus;
and from Issus; and the final
battle, where the fearsome Persian army
at Erbil was swept away.

The first level of irony in the poem is easy to grasp: it’s directed against the Spartans by the speaker, looking back from a high point of Hellenistic culture 134 years after the battle of the Granicus. Already there’s a subtle balance between such irony and a sense of pathos at what the Spartans have done to themselves. But the key to the poem – the point of its title – is a further irony at the expense of the speaker. In the year 200 BC the Hellenistic world was itself on the brink of defeat by Rome. The speaker reveals his own blindness even as he mocks that of the Spartans. This doubling of the irony expresses Cavafy’s profound pessimism about how the course of events, the processes of history and time, expose illusions and make a mockery of aspirations. That puts it too simply though. This isn’t the kind of crude, simple irony where A really means B. Nor is its gaze at human aspiration simply destructive. The interplay of mutually undercutting but equally partial perspectives releases complex ripples of reflection. However pig-headed it was and however much it’s been wrong-footed by events, the attitude of the Spartans has an integrity that gives it a kind of dignity when compared with the frivolous-sounding complacency of the speaker in 200 BC. This dignity is more fully suggested in the outstanding ‘In Sparta’ (which unfortunately isn’t one of Jones’s better translations). However, the speaker isn’t treated to simple ridicule either. When he celebrates

Our influence, our ability
to adapt, a common language, Greek,
carried forth to Bactriana, to the Indians

he’s celebrating a colossal cultural achievement, one that far outlasted Alexander’s or the Romans’ military power. Greek was the language of the Byzantine Empire – the part of the Roman empire that survived into the fifteenth century – and of course the language in which Cavafy wrote his poems. From this point of view, the date in the title suggests how long the inheritance has endured.

Some of the best historical poems are essentially freestanding, of course, in a way that allows Jones the poet-translator to come into his own. One such is the exquisite ‘Caesarion’. In this, the speaker tells us he was idly reading a book of Ptolemaic inscriptions when he came on a brief mention of the supposed son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, murdered by Augustus. There follows a haunting reverie about this almost unknown youth, who becomes for Cavafy an incarnation and symbol of vulnerable, defeated beauty. The power of the poem depends on a shift between two styles, one detached and mildly cynical, the other lyrically rapt. Despite one or two jarring notes, Jones captures the shift effectively, sometimes departing from literal detail for the sake of a deeper truth to feeling:

I would have put the book down but for a brief
and minor entry on King Caesarion
which caught my attention …

Fleshed out in the depth of night,
my lamp flickering –
how I wanted it to flicker –
you came into my room
and stood before me – as  you stood
in conquered Alexandria,
pale and tired, in complete sorrow –
hoping those wicked men might pity you,
they who hissed, ‘One Caesar too many.’

Even more successful is his version of the great ‘Myris, Alexandreia 340 AD’, which also needs no more information than the poem itself holds. Here, the centre of interest is psychological. Set in a time of transition between paganism and Christianity, it gives a young pagan’s account of attending the wake of his Christian beloved, the Myris of the title. Myris had belonged to a band of pleasure-loving young men, all pagans except for him, and had seemed completely in harmony with them except in a couple of trivial-seeming incidents. Now the speaker’s presence causes hostility and embarrassment to Myris’s Christian relatives. He himself is ill at ease. Grief at the loss of Myris in the present and future gradually gives way to a terror that he’s also losing him in the past – the feeling that he never really knew Myris and therefore never really loved him or had his love. An abyss opens in the memory that is the last refuge against loss. The narrative arc brilliantly divides our attention between what the speaker feels and what he sees without really understanding it:

                                     A strange
Feeling came over me. Somehow
I could feel Myris leaving my side;
I could feel that he was a Christian,
Entirely at home with his people

The reader’s contact with the speaker’s emotion is piercingly direct, creating a shudder of sympathetic horror, but the intensity of his feelings blinds him to half of what we immediately understand. It’s plainly not true that Myris was ‘entirely at home with his people’. Conceivably they actually knew nothing of his other life. More probably the fact that they did know something of it explains both their hostility to the speaker and the strenuousness of the efforts they are making now.  The point is that neither side really had or knew Myris and now both have lost him, or, to put it differently, the divisions within Myris himself meant that he wasn’t ‘entirely at home’ with either. Jones vividly transmits these tensions and shifts, making the poem live in our minds with great power, though his translation of the last three lines doesn’t match the violent intensity of Cavafy’s Greek.

Like ‘Myris’, many of the historical poems deal with homosexual love but what more importantly links all the historical poems with the contemporary ones is their shared obsession with time and transience, the perishable nature of beauty, the volatility of feeling, the way time and event expose the illusions on which our emotional lives, decisions and actions are based. In the various conventional orderings of Cavafy’s poems the interweaving of contemporary poems with historical ones creates a rich imaginative interplay between the two perspectives, of transience as lived in and transience as looked back on. I value this interplay of voices and experiences across time so I’m uncertain about Jones’s thematic reordering of the poems, but it does bring poems into new associations and perhaps therefore help one look at Cavafy in a slightly different way, as he suggests in his Afterward. For me, though, the essential and very real value of the book lies in its versions of individual poems, some of which are outstanding, and the way they make one see the individual poems in a new light.


The Barbarians Arrive Today: Poems and Prose by C. P. Cavafy, translated by Evan Jones. £19.99. Carcanet. ISBN 978 1 78410 994-3

I would like to thank David Cooke for permission to repost this review, first published in The High Window here.


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