Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Urban Renewal: A brief comment on Constantine Cavafy

The "city" is to Cavafy what "Nature" was to Wordsworth, what the "garden" was to Andrew Marvell, what the "unspoiled countryside" has been to innumerable poets: a source for poetic inspiration, self-justification, redemption. It is most refreshing to find a poet who has focused his vision on the life of city streets rather than musing in the pasture. It is this urban focus which marks out Cavafy as a clearly modern poet, and Edmund Keeley in his book Cavafy's Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress (Hogarth Press, 1996) rightly appreciates that this theme – usually the city of ancient Alexandria – is both the touchstone of the poet's developing sensibility and the best guide for the reader who wishes to grasp the underlying unity of his work. Keeley does a fine job of charting Cavafy's progress through its streets, sometimes mean, sometimes splendid, sometimes halting, often erotic.

First of course there is the Literal City; fortunately Keeley doesn't burden the reader with historical chronicles, as Cavafy often manipulated his history and mere facts can be irrelevant. Probably the most important fact of the literal city is Cavafy's second-floor apartment in the Rue Lepsius, and Alexandria's cafes and bisexual brothels where he imbibed the cosmopolitan pleasures and sometimes slipped into a small corner of torment.

Next is the Metamorphic City, Alexandria of the past, the crowning glory of the Ptolemaic empire. Within this city the poet's imagination is put to the hard task of somehow reconciling (mostly by means of irony) the harsh conflict of the present and the past, sordidness with beauty, achieved by combining the rhetoric of grandeur with the understatement of worldly observation. This is a testing ground for Cavafy's verbal skill, but in terms of content, the past won out; it was only through a projection of himself into history that Cavafy could exonerate the kind of love that modern society considers shameful: homosexuality.

Poetic town planning thus produces the Sensual City peopled by godlike young men of rare beauty, mapped in vivid details of the flesh and a remarkable coming-out of the poet with explicit homosexual themes. But Cavafy paid a very high price upon entering the gates of the Sensual City: he became an ageing sensualist. It must be admitted, regretfully, that there is more fantasy than actuality in this city: Cavafy seems to debauch upon reflection – We who serve Art, / sometimes with the mind's intensity / can create pleasure that seems almost physical." I consider such elitism to be a bluff for failure, an over-compensation for the sense of loss which runs through Cavafy's poetry: "all lost so quickly ... / the poetic eyes, the pale face ... / in the darkening street". As Keeley observes, "one senses that Cavafy's voyage from a passionate reality to a redemption in art has been made at a high price. With the elevation of his city to a realm where memory, imagination, and metamorphosed feeling rule entirely, where the act of poetic creation has come to replace the act of involved physical passion, we discern that the actual city outside his window has become unrecognizable to him ... made inaccessible by the poet's intense preoccupation with the haunting image of an earlier city."

Somewhat paradoxically, Cavafy's most concrete homosexual poems also contain the most sublimated archetype – images of Adonis, a lad so lovely that Cavafy sometimes tumbles headlong into a sentimentalised paean to his virtues and beauty. Cavafy says in "Days of 1909, '10, and '11": "I ask myself if the great Alexandria / of ancient times could boast of a boy / more exquisite, more perfect – thoroughly neglected though he was" in modern Alexandria. Keeley justly punctures this nostalgic balloon: "Given the normal range of priorities in the twentieth century, it is difficult to blame even the society of British-occupied Egypt for failing to support this Adonis under some system of patronage that would reward beauty alone."

Eventually Cavafy's obsession with transforming the past leads to the Mythical City, a Hellenism nearly as puritanical, despite its fundamentally hedonistic bias, as Julian the Apostate's attempt to revive paganism to counteract Christianity. Ultimately Cavafy's vsion is that of a snob: the best people are those who dress like the Greeks, talk like the Greeks, behave like the Greeks – whether in Alexandria or Antioch or Cyprus – and take "the Hellenic kind of pleasure." Heeley wisely refrains from noting that Cavafy was very nearly a homosexual chauvinist. "The Greek way of life" may indeed be infinitely superior to "holy" Judaism and Christianity, as Cavafy says most convincingly in "Myris: Alexandria, AD340", but when all is said and done, even the most attractive male prostitute in Antioch is after all just a human being, not an idol of Eros to be worshipped so slavishly.

Humour is rare in Cavafy's work, though it occasionally occurs: "But they had the satisfaction that their life / was the notorious life of Antioch, / delectable, in absolute good taste" ("Julian and the Antiochians"). Done with humour, such Philhellenism would be most acceptable, but Cavafy's predominant earnestness makes it ripe for debunking. Keeley is himself a bit too serious in his criticism of the poems, a bit too sympathetic to Cavafy's compassion and commitment and pride and suffering, a bit too impressed by his obvious sincerity, to stop and realise that it is precisely the poet's sincerity which is most cloying.

The last stage of the journey is all too predictable: the Universal City, where the poet's affirmation of ancient values becomes an act of faith – inevitably tragic and heroic – in the fact of historical transience. Again, I have less sympathy for the "nobility" of this theme than does Keeley. But Keeley's general attitude is just: Cavafy is one of this century's major poets, albeit with reservations.


(This review was originally published in Gay News many years ago. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This critique may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)


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