The Canon: The Original One Hundred and Fifty-Four Poems

Charles Simic writes:

Cavafy’s historical poems are both nostalgic and realistic. He may grow dreamy – as he often does – thinking of some beautiful young man’s heroic life and early death, but he doesn’t forget the cynical power struggles of the day. He’s ‘more coroner than commentator, equally disinclined to offer blame or grant the benefit of the doubt,’ is how Seamus Heaney puts it in his foreword to Haviaras’s translations. Tyrants with one mad idea in their head fascinated Cavafy. He has six poems, for example, about Julian the Apostate, a vicious fourth-century Byzantine emperor who tried to abolish Christianity and return to an intolerant version of paganism. He wrote often about people caught between the two, as in ‘Priest at the Serapeion’, beautifully translated by Haviaras, in which a Christian priest laments the death of his father, a pagan priest in the temple of Serapis at Alexandria.

(LRB 20 March 2008)