Thursday, February 3, 2022

Constantin P. Cavafy's The God Abandons Antony (#poem) ... or maybe Forsakes...

The God Forsakes Antony
When suddenly, at the midnight hour
an invisible company is heard going past,
with exquisite music, with voices--
your fate that's giving in now, your deeds
that failed, your life's plans that proved to be
all illusions, do not needlessly lament.
As one long since prepared, as one courageous,
bid farewell to the Alexandria that's leaving.
Above all, don't be misled, don't say it was
a dream, that your ears deceived you;
don't deign to foster such vain hopes.
As one long since prepared, as one courageous,
as befits you who were deemed worthy of such a city,
move with steady steps toward the window
and listen with deepest feeling, yet not
with a coward's entreaties and complaints,
listen as an ultimate delight to the sounds,
to the exquisite instruments of the mystical company,
and bid farewell to the Alexandria you are losing.

-Constantin P. Cavafy (tr. Evangelos Sachperoglu)

One of the most famous of Cavafy's poems. I should have picked something less well-known, but in the end, I didn't. 😉 The final version of the poem is from 1911. Cavafy is, of course, a native of Alexandria.

It alludes to Plutarch's Life of Antony (ch. 75, here from the 'Dryden' translation). Dionysus, Antony's patron god, leaves him to his fate. Antony is bottled up by Octavian's forces in Alexandria:

'That night, it is related, about the middle of it, when the whole city was was in a deep silence and general sadness, expecting the event of the next day, on a sudden was heard the sound of all sorts of instruments, and voices singing in tune, and the cry of a crowd of people shouting and dancing, like a troop of bacchanals on its way. This tumultuous procession seemed to take its course right through the middle of the city to the gate nearest the enemy; here it became the loudest, and suddenly passed out. People who reflected considered this to signify that Bacchus, the god whom Antony had always made it his study to copy and imitate, had now forsaken him."

Antony commits suicide the next day rather than be taken by Octavian, shortly to be followed by Cleopatra.

I was spouting off about Cavafy translations recently, and have been wanting to look them up. I generally prefer the Sachperoglu versions (in Oxford World Classics) except I prefer the alternative title 'The God Abandons Antony', more commonly used. The first few lines from the Keeley and Sherrard version:

At midnight, when suddenly you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive--don't mourn them uselessly:
as one long prepared, and full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is leaving.
And the opening of the Daniel Mendelsohn version:
When suddenly at midnight, there comes the sound
of an invisible procession passing by
with exquisite music playing, with voices raised--
your good fortune, which now gives way; all your efforts'
ill-starred outcome; the plans you made for life,
which turned out wrong: don't mourn them uselessly
Like one who's long prepared, like someone brave,
bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, who is leaving.
Your preference?

The Sachperoglu is bilingual; the Mendelsohn has more poems and more notes. Keeley & Sherrard is probably the best-known.

I started to type in the Greek, but doing that on my English keyboard began to feel like a chore...

I believe there is also a version by Rae Dalven, who was the first to translate a volume of Cavafy into English, in 1961, but I couldn't conveniently find it. But in looking for it on line, I discovered Leonard Cohen set a version to music on his album Ten New Songs of 2001. He sings it as a duet with Sharon Robinson. Alexandria gets changed to Alexandra, so it can pass as a breakup song if you like.

I thought it was pretty good.

Cavafy is important in the Durrell Alexandria Quartet series.


  1. I'm glad that you chose this poem because I hadn't heard of it or Cavafy. It's interesting ..... not like the poetry I'm used to but the words and wording are impactful and resonating.

    I like Keeley/Sherrand translation for its sparing yet descriptive words and Mendelsohn is good too. I don't know why the Dryden feels so odd.

    Bidding farewell to Alexandria ...... I can't see Anthony being emotional distraught at this, only practically distraught because he'll lose land and power. However maybe Alexandria is a metaphor? Or is the poet imprinting his own feelings onto Anthony?

    So many questions! Feel free not to answer them, as I'm just thinking aloud.

    Hooray for poetry Thursday on Typings!

    P.S. I prefer "forsaken" rather than "abandon". The former implies a deeper tie and therefore gives the poem more pathos.

    1. I think you might like Cavafy. He lived most of his life in Alexandria and died in 1933, but a lot of his poems are sort of stories about the ancient world. (Like this one.)

      Alexandria is probably both his love for Cleopatra & his ambition to rule the Mediterranean. But also Cavafy just loves his city, I think, and gives that love to Antony as well. Maybe! ;-)

      The other thing, though, about Cavafy is that he writes in Katharevousa, the older style of modern Greek. Between the language and the subject matter, I feel like I can nearly read them, though I don't really know modern Greek.

  2. Oh, what a treat! I love Cavafy's poetry and, while this isn't my favorite (that honor goes to Ithaka) I like this poem very much. I'm afraid I haven't read many different translations of the poems; I found the Keeley/Sherrand translations & liked them so much I never looked elsewhere.
    I'm so envious of your ability to read classical Greek. By the time I was able to take classes in college, I'm afraid the interest/drive wasn't strong enough.
    Funny story about Cavafy & me? The first time I read the Alexandria Quartet, I had never heard of Cavafy and assumed he was Durrell's invention! I was quite shocked when I later encountered his poetry and realized he was real!

    1. Ithaka is awfully great, too. It almost made it to this post, but it is a bit longer. Waiting for the Barbarians is another favorite of mine, oh, and then, and then... ;-)

      I think I knew who Cavafy was when I first read the Alexandria Quartet--I mean, Durrell does make up a bunch of poets...

      It helped with the Greek that I started it in high school. Pretty unusual these days, I think, and not something I had ever planned on.

    2. You were lucky indeed about the Greek. My high school did have Latin, probably the last public high school in my staunchly southern state which did so (on the other hand, all the secondary schools had football teams!) I did conitnue Latin and classics in college, but I'm afraid my focus had slipped to other things and I didn't want to spend the time on Greek (regret that now). And I totally agree, Waiting for the Barbarians is a great poem . . . .

    3. Even Latin was getting unusual, I suspect. At the time language was something I had to take--I was going to be a math/science person and whatever foreign language--it was just something I had to take. At my initial councillor meeting--with as it turned out, the chairman of the Classics department--he said, a student like you should take Latin. So I said OK and then took Greek when it came along.

      Even as an undergraduate I started taking Latin just for the distribution requirements, but then my favorite teacher turned out to be the Classics professor & I took a lot of classes because it was her.

  3. v nice poem... don't know much about Cavafy except he was a friend of Forster and Kazantzakis' i think... maybe...

    1. I've definitely heard that about Forster. I wouldn't be surprised about Kazantzakis. K was about 20 years younger, but they probably knew each other.

  4. First read of this poem for me. I liked it. Thanks for sharing. :)

  5. Trust Leonard Cohen to get to work on that.

    1. Either the breakup song or the melancholic Greek poet--either or both!