Cavafy and the Erotics of the Lost Daniel Mendelsohn
It is as a poet with two great subjects—the remote Hellenic past and intense homosexual yearning—that we know Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933). But if the objects of his poetic interest were few, his treatment of them was remarkably varied. The Alexandrian poet’s imagination of the Greek past ranged from the murky prehistory of myth (there are early verses set during the Trojan war), to the Hellenistic period, in all of its vast cosmopolitan sprawl from Egypt to Syria to Greece itself; from the acme of Roman civilization (a couple of tart poems about Caesar and Nero ignoring warnings both divine and human; a series of very feeling verses about Marc Antony, a Hellenophile for whom the Alexandrian poet had great emotion), to the late antique era; from the early to the high Byzantine. As for homosexual desire, this too has many moods and keys in the poet’s work, from mournful reminiscence to exultant celebration, from anguish to ecstasy—although it is worth noting that even here it is what we may call the erotic past that is captures the poet’s imagination, since what preoccupies him is lost desire, lost opportunities for such desire, or gratifications of such desire that were too briefly obtained and then lost, too.
      But what makes Cavafy so remarkable was not, as it is too often tempting to think, that he managed to be a poet of desire and a poet of the past, but that he was a poet of desire through the past. It is sometimes hard to remember, given the total authority of even his earliest poetic utterances, that Cavafy did indeed experiment and develop as a thinker and writer over the course of nearly fifty years of creative output; one thing that emerges when we look at the career as a whole is how well and idiosyncratically the poet learned to use the historical as a tool for exploring the personal. He began, indeed, with a poetic and personal crisis, a block: how to speak about homosexual desire. This crisis, he came to understand, could only be solved by means of his intellectual attachment to the Greek cultural inheritance.
      A clue as to why this was so is to be found in the fact that it was specifically the culture of the Hellenistic and Late Antique eras that became the vehicles for the poet’s explorations of the nature of desire in time. These were, after all, ages that were themselves haunted by the past—torn (as the narrator of Cavafy’s erotic lyrics so often is) between the then and the now. That tension, in turn, was reflected by another, a geographical one: between the here and the there. Few of the poems that many think of as being about ancient Greece are, in fact, set in Greece itself. Instead, nearly all of the poems of the past are set in cultural outposts of Hellenistic Greece—Seleucia in Asia Minor, Alexandria in Egypt—places that were hybrids of local and Greek cultures. That were often divided, in other words, between where they were and what they wanted to be.
      It was a Hellenistic knack for conflation, for mediating between seemingly distinct categories, that allowed Cavafy to achieve a new kind of poetry, a great modern poetry in which two key elements that were present from the very beginning— fervent desire, on the one hand, and painful absence, on the other; the erotic and what I call “the lost” (a category that includes whole civilizations as well as beautiful boys)—gradually came together over the course of some crucial years in his artistic growth in a way that created a third element, much as the simultaneous sounding of two notes will create a third, an overtone. In Cavafy’s case, the overtone was a profound self-consciousness of the power of his own art, and profound insight into the nature of poetry itself. In the end, what he united was was not merely the ancient and the modern, or the Hellenic and Hellenistic, the European and the North African, the European and western Asian; but indeed the speakable and the unspeakable, shame and pride, the latent and patent, the real and the imagined—and, in the greatest work, the subject and the object, desirer and desired, the writer and his inspiration, the act of love and the act of poetry.
In a note written to himself in the late-night hours of the 9th of November, 1902, Constantine Cavafy remarked, with a typical fusion of frankness and obscurity, on what was, to that point, his greatest creative frustration:
It went through my mind tonight to write about my love. And yet I won’t do it. Such the power that prejudice has. I have been freed from it; but I think about those enslaved under whose eyes this paper may pass. And I stop. What pusillanimity! Let me note, nonetheless, one letter—T-—as a symbol of this moment.
Timos Malanos, Cavafy’s early biographer, made the intriguing suggestion that the mysterious letter ‘T’ stood for the poem “Walls,” the first letter of whose Greek title (“Tikhi”) it is. Whether this seductive notion is true it is impossible to say, but it does serve to introduce us to a poem that well captures the emotional and poetic modes that mark, in a sense, the place from which Cavafy was to grow. Here is “Walls”:
With no pity, with no decency, with no consideration
they’ve built around me enormous, towering walls.
And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:
because I had so many things to do out there.
Ah, how could I fail to notice them building the walls.
But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they’ve shut me off from the outside world.
The poem was one in a grouping to which Cavafy, in his thematic ordering of his work, classed under the heading of “Prisons.” It is surely not hard to see why. The sense of entrapment, of being cut off from the urgent world of lived life, the desperate plight of an emotional immuration—all these are beautifully conveyed in the Greek by alternating series of homophonous end-rhymes, which effectively lock the sense, as it were, into the structure of the poem—and then throw away the key.
      This poem was written in September 1896, when Cavafy was thirty-three, and published probably early the next year; to this period of the mid- to late 1890s belongs, indeed, some of Cavafy’s bleakest work. In the very similar “Windows,” written in August 1897, the title offers a terrible irony, since it evolves that the windows that the anxious narrator, pacing back and forth in his room, seeks to open, in a vain hope that he might find some consolation, parigoria, not only cannot be opened but do not, in fact, exist. More terrible still, in the closing lines the speaker muses that perhaps this oppressive enclosure, so reminiscent of that in “Walls,” is actually for the best, since “perhaps the light will bring a new oppression,” tirannia—a word paired, by means of end-rhyme, to bitter ironic effect here, with consolation, parigoria.
      That the light could only bring “new oppression” to the speaker suggests a terrible hopelessness: and terrible it was, since we know it concerned his pained awareness of his illicit erotic urges—the homosexuality about which, of course, Cavafy became famously outspoken in later works. It is a testimony to the power and authority of those later poetic utterances about his homosexual life, in which his or his characters’ orientation is rather casually assumed, that we tend to forget the claustrophobic bitterness of these early poems, which brilliantly make use of formal means—airtight rhymes, rhythms like the bars on a prison window—to suggest the hopelessness that the young man felt about his chances for fulfillment.
      We can gauge just how hopeless the young poet felt from poems like “An Old Man,” composed in 1894 and published in 1897, in which it’s as if Cavafy seems to look into the future only to see the end of a life that has clearly been a failure. In this poem, a decrepit old man sits at the end of a boisterous bar, cut off (as is the narrator of “Walls”) from the bustle around him by his solitary thoughts and an awareness of his failure, and realizes “how little he enjoyed the years / when he had strength, and wit, and looks”—having instead sacrificed “how much delight,” posi khara, to the villain identified as “discretion,” Phronisis.
It is interesting to note, before we leave these brooding early years behind, that Cavafy’s first great subject—lost opportunities, lost happiness—haunts, in this period, his imaginings and invocations of the Greek cultural inheritance; one thinks, for example, of the poem “Interruption,” a short verse whose wry compression borders on tartness:
It’s we who interrupt the work of the immortals,
we hasty, inexperienced creatures of a moment.
In the palaces of Eleusis and of Phthia
Demeter and Thetis initiate good works
amidst high flames and dense smoke.
But Metaneira always comes rushing in from the
royal halls, her hair disheveled, terrified,
and Peleus always takes fright, and interferes.
Here we are squarely in the territory of high classical myth—a place, as we know, where Cavafy, with his post-Classical preferences, rarely lingered; it is not without significance that the poems based on myths—this one, “Achilles’s Horses,” “Unfaithfulness,” to which I shall return in a moment—date to the early output of the 1890s: that is, to the poet’s “imprisoned” period. The allusion in “Interruption” is to how the mythic Metaneira, in the Demeter myth, and Peleus in the story of Achilles, foolishly interrupted the strange-looking processes by which their respective children would have gained eternal life. But whether in “real” life or in myth, it is possible to see, in these tormented early poems whose punch lines, so to speak, all involve a terrible hindsight, how too much phronisis—the excessive caution that results from partial vision, the smug short-sightedness of men, their blind allegiance to ‘discretion’ and their own ‘prejudices’—can lead to deaths both real and metaphorical.
An interesting shift in Cavafy’s creative focuses and poetic emphases begins to take place about ten years later. If the pathetic old man in “An Old Man” may be said in some way to represent the early Cavafy’s feelings about his chances for emotional fulfillment, ca. 1895, in the middle of the first decade of the new century—that is, when the poet was nearing forty—we see a subtle but crucial evolution from embittered regret for ‘the lost’ (lost loves, lost opportunities, lost life, even) to a kind of beautification, and even eroticisation, of such loss—or rather the figures who come to represent it in this period: the beautiful dead. If we can make use of the architectural metaphor implicit in the poet’s own title for one of his thematic groups, we might say that he has moved from the period of oppressive prisons to that of beautiful tombs.
      Consider, for instance, the small but ravishing rhymed poem called “Longings,” Epithimies, written in September 1904 and printed later that year, in Cavafy’s first published edition:
Like the beautiful bodies of the dead who never aged,
shut away inside a splendid tomb by tearful mourners
with roses at their head and jasmine at their feet¯
that’s what longings look like when they’ve passed away
without being fulfilled, before they could be made complete
by just one of pleasure’s nights, or one of its radiant mornings.
Here, lost opportunities are symbolized not by the useless body of an aged and vaguely laughable old man but by the pristine bodies of the beautiful youthful dead. There are other details to suggest that our experience of “the lost” this time ought to be a beautiful one: there are those roses, the fragrant jasmine, the splendid tomb, mavsolio lambro, itself. If in the “Prison” poems Cavafy used formal elements to construct prison-like containers for regret, he here has begun to make poems that similarly house a sense of lost happiness, but the houses are associated explicitly with pleasure.
      The growing association between the world of the lost and the world of the beautiful similarly occurs in a short verse first written in the summer of 1894 but revised in 1903 and published the following year: “Voices,” Phones:
Perfect voices, and beloved,
of those who died, or of those who
for us are lost like the dead.
Sometimes in our dreams they speak;
sometimes in its thought the mind will hear them.
And with their sound for a moment there return
the sounds from the first poetry of our life—
like music, at nighttime, far away, that’s dying.
Here the dead bodies of “Longings” have come back to haunt us, as ghostly voices; as we shall see, this transubstantiation of the corporeal into the verbal will recur later on, far more elaborately, with considerable significance for Cavafy’s understanding of his own poetic project—and power. What is worth noting at this point is the ongoing substitution of beauty for loss; for the focus here is not so much on the voices of the lost, khameni, but on the fact that they are accompanied by other sounds, the sounds of art: music, poetry. Or rather the voices are, by the end of the poem, indistinguishable from poetry and music—as the poignant and ravishing final line, with its caressing assonances and seductive liquids suggest: sa mousiki, tin nikhta, makrini, pou svini: “like music, at nighttime, far away, that’s dying.” Here the “lost,” symbolized by the verb svino, “quench” or “extinguish,” which Cavafy likes to use to suggest hopelessly missed chances, particularly erotic ones (for instance, in the later poem “He Asked About the Quality—” where it is used to describe the “quenched” voice of a youth trying to make furtive contact with another in a haberdashery)—here svino takes on an aesthetic, languourous luster, assonantly coupled, as it is, with the moody nikhta, “night,” and makrini, “far-off.”
      It is another “tomb-poem,” like “Voices” originally dating to the 1890s but reworked and published in the first decade of the new century, that most fully and with greatest complexity advances the project of transforming loss, and “the lost,” into an eroticized beauty that in turn hints self-reflexively at the power of poetry to effect just that metamorphosis. The poem reimagines a moment in high classical myth: the death at Patroklos’s hands of Zeus’s son Sarpedon, fighting for the Trojans, which we remember from the sixteenth book of the Iliad. It begins with the youth’s death, and the Greeks’ attempt to dishonor the corpse. And yet while this body—like, say, that of the old man in “Old Man”—is hideous at first, it undergoes a remarkable transformation, narrated with an almost prurient, strip-tease languor; for the poet goes on to show, in great detail, Apollo washing and tending the corpse, erasing the dirt and blood, healing the terrible wounds “so that there is no trace left”; and then anointing it with ambrosial perfume, and dressing it in radiant, lambra, Olympian garments. Then the god bleaches the skin, combs the jet-black hair, spreads out and arranges the limbs. The result is that the dead Sarpedon looks, the poet says, “like a royal charioteer, twenty-five, maybe twenty-six years old, resting himself after winning the prize in a famous race.”
      Hearing this, it is difficult not to think of the exquisitely arranged, perfumed, unblemished bodies of the beautiful dead in “Longings”—with the exception, of course, that the transformed and beautified Sarpedon is here fantasized as being ecstatically fulfilled, resting after a culminating triumph, rather than deprived of the pleasures of life. And indeed this poem both expands upon that slightly earlier one but also makes some crucial changes. There, the corpses are beautiful to be sure but still “shut up” by the end of the poem in the “radiant,” lambro, tomb by tearful mourners. Here too we get a glimpse of the corpse, once disfigured but then beautified by Apollo; but there is much more. After Apollo’s cosmetic intervention, the body of the dead boy is transferred to Sarpedon’s home town of Lycia, where the poem’s eponymous funeral occurs. The rite is described as being elaborate, with libations and processions and honors; and yet the poem ends not with the obsequies but with the detail that “skilled artisans from the city” and “celebrated craftsmen in stone” have come to make the monument, mnima, and the grave-stele. In the earlier poem, it was, ultimately, the deadness of the bodies that triumphed over their beauty, as its beautifully bleak closing lines suggested; here, note how the culminating emphasis is on act of artistic commemoration that will make the beautified Sarpedon live on as both a visual and a verbal object, the statue and the stele. Indeed, we are left with the notion that the creative act is not only parallel to, but somehow competes with, and finally eclipses, the beauty treatment provided by immortal Apollo: the marmoreally lovely Sarpedon may look like a winner of a “renowned,” xakouston, contest, agona, but that body will rot, whereas it is the famous, fimismeni, mortal craftsmen, renowned for their art, who will make that body truly immortal.
      The increasing hints, in the poems of the first few years of the century, that the world that has been lost to us is yet recuperable, reconstitutable for aesthetic appreciation, as art, are triumphantly confirmed in a poem called “December 1903,” never published by Cavafy but catalogued by him in January 1904, at the moment when he has entered into this new phase, a phase in which he has begun to master how to take the erotic despair of ten years before and to associate it with beauty, and ultimately with poetry. The poet asserts here that “even though I may not speak about my love,” various features of the beloved—his face, the sound of his voice, some days in September when, presumably, the affair took place—will give “shape and color” to his words and phrases, no matter what subject he’s writing about, no matter what he may be speaking of.
      It is impossible not to hear in this a strong echo of the poet’s private note to himself, with which I began, the note written a year earlier, in which the poet complains of the impossibility of “writing about my love.” Just as, in that note, he obliquely suggests—if “T” indeed stands for “Walls”—that his poetry will ultimately speak in a way that he cannot, so here too, in “December 1903,” in the very form of a poem, we find a bolder assertion of the same notion: that in the end poetic activity will triumph over real-life absence, silence, and “lost” opportunities, as indeed this poem itself so beautifully “speaks” to us of just that which the poet himself, in his “real” life, cannot.
Another decade passes. We move from the century’s first to its second decade, from the poet’s forties to his fifties. The gradually and increasingly confident intertwining of loss, eroticized beauty, and poetry itself reaches its apogee in a remarkable series of poems, all written during the height of the carnage of the first World War (a conflict whose great slaughters of young men surely inspired this series)—poems that, in fact, take the form of the very stelae of which “The Tomb of Sarpedon” makes its climactic mention. In these poems, the poet has dispensed with the beautiful dead bodies, focusing our attention more boldly on matters textual rather than sexual. Sarpedon, let us recall, got both a monument—a stone statue of some kind—and an inscription: in this new phase of Cavafy’s development there is an imaginative and poetic shift from the one to the other, the visual to the verbal.
      The stele-poem, “Tomb of Iases,” takes the form of the grave inscription of an imaginary ancient Alexandrian youth called Iases:
Here I lie: Iases. Throughout this great city I was renowned
for being the most beautiful boy.
Admired by men of deep learning—and also by the less profound,
the common folk. Both gave equal joy
to me. But they took me so often for a Narcissus or a Hermes
that excess wore me out, and killed me. Passerby,
if you’re an Alexandrian you won’t judge me. You know the yearnings
of our life; what heat they hold; what pleasures most high.
The verses, composed in April 1917 and published the following month, are terse but striking. If the first decade of the century Cavafy experimented with the aestheticization of the lost, symbolized by lovely corpses that were the object of a fascinated erotic visual interest, in the second we see him doing something more daring: what these grave stele poems do is, in fact, to turn the objects into subjects, giving assertive voice to the beautiful dead bodies whom the earlier phase of these death-obsessed poems described in such caressing detail. Unlike the bodies in “Longings,” or Sarpedon’s beautified corpse in “Sarpedon’s Funeral,” the beautiful boy in “Tomb of Iasis” has a mind as well as a body, one that he speaks with considerable aplomb.
      And what he talks about, in fact, what he articulates with almost aggressive candor, is the erotic feeling that we experienced only second-hand, almost pruriently, by means of the descriptions of the dead bodies in those earlier poems. If in “Voices,” written nearly a quarter century earlier, we heard the voices of the dead, they were still indistinct; the poet doesn’t tell us what they said. Not so in this and other grave-stele poems of the nineteen-teens: In “Tomb of Lanis,” from December 1916, the dead boy Lanis chides his boyfriend Markos for weeping at his tomb when his beauty may be found instead in the portrait that the infatuated Markos had once had painted of his beloved; in “Tomb of Ignatios,” of April 1916, the young man, dead at 28, scolds the reader for thinking of him as he used to be, the extravagant, wealthy youth Kleon—his name, that is, until his conversion to Christianity, “ten happy months” before his early death.
      But none is as aggressive as Iasis, who, if anything, has far less reverence for his beautiful body than the poet himself did for that of Sarpedon, or those we gazed at in “Longings.” He’s used himself up, indulged his “drives,” ormes (the word is the same as that used by the “Old Man” to describe the youthful urges he hadn’t the courage to act on)—indulged himself to death; and what of it? Alexandrians, the heirs to pagan culture, will understand. Here, at last, we truly feel the “freedom” of which Cavafy, in that note of fifteen years earlier, had poignantly boasted—not merely the naming of a forbidden desire, for which he barely allowed himself to hope back then, but a positive exultation in forbidden fulfillment.
So far, the poet has moved from vilification of “the lost”—lost opportunities, lost love, lost happiness—to an objectification of it; thence to what we might call a subjectification of it, a process whereby he ennobles “the lost” and gives it its own speaking voice. There is, however, one more step Cavafy must take in order to reach his great maturity, one that alchemizes the voice of the beautiful dead into a voice that, as we shall see, is that of the poet himself—or, rather, of poetry itself, which in so many of the late, great works speaks vividly of its own mysterious workings.
      The last poem I shall discuss in detail, a fascinating variation on the grave-stele theme is a poem entitled “In the Month of Athyr,” also published in May 1917, and written a few months earlier. At first glance, it seems fairly straightforward—indeed, less arresting than the Iasis poem. Here again we are presented with a grave stele, an ancient stone that gives the bare details of the life of a Christian called Lefkios who died at twenty-six in the eponymous month—the late-fall month devoted to Athyr, an obscure Egyptian goddess of “tombs and carnal love” (a Cavafian deity if ever there was one). And yet this inscription is different in one crucial respect to that announcing the death of hedonistic Iasis; for the text of Cavafy’s poem makes it clear that the inscription is badly deteriorated, and is indeed filled with the kind of punctuation—brackets, ellipses—familiar to epigraphers and papyrologists and others who study the fragmentary texts of the past, marks that announce the loss of letters and phrases, and which enclose editorial suggestions for what might have been contained therein:
With difficulty I read        upon this ancient stone
“LO[R]D JESUS CHRIST”.         I can just make out a “SO[U]L”.
Where they record his age        “THE SPAN OF YEARS HE LI[VE]D”
the Two and Seven are proof        that he went to his rest a youth.
Amidst the erosion I see        “HI[M]...AN ALEXANDRIAN.”
Then there are three        radically amputated lines;
but some words I can make out ¯        like “OUR T[E]ARS,” “THE PAIN,”
further down there’s “TEARS” again,        and “GRIEF FOR [U]S, HIS [F]RIENDS.”
When it came to love, it seems to me that Lefkios        was greatly blessed.
In the month of Athyr        Lefkios went to his rest.
Here, the words no longer report the thoughts of the dead boy; nor is his body the object of an erotically-charged gaze. There is in fact an elaborate displacement going on here. For it is the mourning friends who are given voice here; in a way, we are merely overhearing them, though the yet further framing of the reading of the words that convey what they once said by the narrator of the poem. And if their eroded words, dictated then engraved then read then reported, paint the usual picture—a youth; Alexandrian; grief; friends, dead in his twenties—what is most striking is the way in which the visual prurience of the earlier “dead body” poems—poems that kept asking the question “what did he look like?”—has become here a kind of verbal prurience: “what were they really saying about him?” or indeed, “what does it say?”—questions that in turn leads us to the answer to another question: “who was he?”
      I have been using the word “prurience” in discussing this poem not unself-consciously, because the tantalizingly fragmentary nature of the inscription surely creates “desire” to know the whole. But if this desire looks reassuringly harmless and philological, it is, I think, assimilated to the erotic. Note how we begin in a state of slow-burning but very real frustration (“I read with difficulty,” “I barely make out”), hungering for a glimpse not, ostensibly, of a beautiful body but of a text. Yet this text is, I think, subtly likened to a body, for like a body it is subject to decay (it is phtharmena, and phthirô is a word Cavafy likes to use of flesh, for instance in “One of Their Gods,” where the beautiful youth walking through the agora of Seleucia, who may or may not be an Olympian deity, rejoices in the incorruptibility, aphtharsia, of his beautiful body)—this text is subject to decomposition and indeed has had three lines “amputated,” akrotiriasmenes: a striking word. Moreoever, these epigraphical deteriorations, mutilations, and losses parallel, and thus inevitably call to mind, the fate of that other missing object, the boy Lefkios himself, whose decaying body lies (presumably phtharmena) beneath the very stele we are reading.
      And yet from all this decay, and absence, and loss, something good and beautiful results. For the metamorphosis of the corporeal into the verbal that we have seen here is accompanied by a yet stranger alchemy: that is, of nothing into something. From the twinned losses, that of the boy, about whom we have partial information, and that of the text from which we try to glean that information, the narrator—the reader, that is—nonetheless triumphantly reconstitutes something, something meaningful, in a climactic act that manages to be both one of interpretation and one of creation. For despite all the absences, the voids, the incompleteness, the approximation, the reader/narrator in the poem is able to make one beautiful conclusion: “When it came to love, it seems to me it seems that Lefkios was greatly blessed.”
      Read in the context of Cavafy’s ongoing experimentation with intertwining beauty and loss, desire and death, this poem achieves remarkable substitution of words for bodies, reading for looking, language for desire, and, finally, love for loss—or, perhaps better, a conflation of all of those things, one that yet elevates our consciousness of that overtone I spoke of earlier, which is the power of the mind making connections, conflations, interpretations: that is, the power of poetry.
      I say “of poetry” rather than mere “writing” because I believe we are meant to be thinking of someone other than poor Lefkios here. Let us think back for a moment to Cavafy’s wretched, frustrated 1902 note to himself about his erotic/poetic despair: the inability to speak, the necessary elisions, the parts that must somehow suggest the whole, the almost pathetic faith in cryptic letters that, standing on their own, just might convey an impossible weight of urgent meaning. Surely all these reappear in this remarkable “Month of Athyr”—as, just as surely, the poet himself reappears: for he is also someone about whom, as he had suggested all those years ago, we know some but not all, who oscillated between speech and maddening silences. The crucial difference between 1902 and 1917, however, is that what could not be uttered before has been articulated here, in a climactic half-line that, within the poem, is the culmination—just as this poem within the oeuvre marks a culmination—of all that has come before: absence, presence, desire, language, beauty and loss, writing and interpretation, love and poetry. “It went through my mind tonight to write about my love,” went our first Cavafian utterance; “but I will not.” “It seems to me that he was loved,” goes this final utterance. So that was it: He was loved.
Cavafy identified the year 1911 as the portal to his mature work; but I wonder if the poet was being a few years premature. For my part, I think of “Athyr” as that gateway to the great decade and a half between 1917 and 1932 that saw an unstinting stream of masterpieces in which a remarkable triple conflation—of desire, of loss, and of poetry—is achieved at a dazzling new level of complexity and subtlety. In so many of these later works, motifs of wanting and watching, of reflection and self-reflection, writing and interpretation, presence and absence, then and now, of “reading” art and of making it, fuse with a sweet fierce poignancy that we recognize as the hallmark of the Cavafian style.
      Before going on to one last poem, a poem of this period, though, it is worth thinking back to the frustration with which we began, the gagged, thwarted, embittered world of that private note, of “Walls” and of “Windows.” It is indeed tempting to wonder whether Cavafy himself, in his old age, thought wryly of those two bleak early poems when he composed this late one, which is such a triumphant retort to them (one that indeed culminates with joy, pride, and an act of creation through memory.) For if a wall is a flat impenetrable surface that, as it were, holds things too well, and a window is a flat transparent surface that contains too little, then how better to suggest both at the same time—while perhaps transcending the limitations of either—than by means of a mirror, which has both flatness and depth, opacity without claustrophobia, and a kind of transparency that yet contains something; which, moreover, conflates self and other, subject and object, here and there? How better, in other words, to symbolize poetry itself, which must mediate, as Cavafy’s work finally did, between now and then, fulfillment and desire, between solid external reality and fantastical inner visions (of what has been, of what might be)-—irreal visions from which we very real creatures derive substinence?
In the entrance of that sumptuous home
there was an enormous mirror, very old;
acquired at least eighty years ago.
A strikingly beautiful boy, a tailor’s shop-assistant,
(on Sunday afternoons, an amateur athlete),
was standing with a package. He handed it
to one of the household, who then went back inside
to fetch a receipt. The tailor’s shop-assistant
remained alone, and waited.
He drew near the mirror, and stood gazing at himself,
and straightening his tie. Five minutes later
they brought him the receipt. He took it and left.
But the ancient mirror, which had seen and seen again,
throughout its lifetime of so many years,
thousands of objects and faces—
but the ancient mirror now became elated,
inflated with pride, because it had received upon itself
perfect beauty, for a few minutes.
      “Ancient mirror,” paleos kathreftis: it would be hard to think of a phrase that better suggests not only the poet himself, weary with the knowledge of the ages and yet ever-receptive to the impression of new beauty upon his sensibility—that distinctively Cavafian mix of cynicism and ardent freshness—but also his poetics, his use of the ‘ancient’ to mirror back at us our contemporary selves in all of our always-yearning, always-losing poignancy.
            In the foregoing, I tried to shed a little light on that dazzling object, the poetic mirror, and on the process by which, over the course of forty years, Cavafy came to construct it. “Mirror in the Entrance Hall” was published in 1930; as for the poet himself, he would go on holding and reflecting vanished beauty (which of course only remains to be gazed at today in his remembering of it), until three years later, when his own disappearance from the world made him, at last, one of the beautiful lost whose words, if I may permit myself to conclude by paraphrasing his own, come back to us still, over again, like a receding and yet—as our presence here today suggests—ever-present music in the night.

Daniel Mendelsohn, “Cavafy and the Erotics of the Lost”, Gerald Else Lecture, University of Michigan, 15 March, 2002. Published in CML. Classical and Modern Literature, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Fall 2003)