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C. P. Cavafy: Ars Poetica, in inglese | Hellenismos.com
C. P. Cavafy: Ars Poetica, in inglese

C. P. Cavafy: Ars Poetica, in inglese

Posted September 26th, 2008 by webmaster


Alexandria  Egypt





    After the already  settled Emendatory Work, a philosophical scrutiny of my poems should be made. 

    Flagrant inconstancies, illogical possibilities, ridiculous exaggerations should certainly be corrected in the poems; and where the corrections cannot be made the poems should be sacrificed, retaining only any verses of such sacrificed poems as might prove useful later on in the making of new work.

    Still the spirit in which the Scrutiny is to be conducted should not be too fanatical.

    The profit of personal experience is undoubtedly a sound one; but were it strictly observed it would limit tremendously literary production and even philosophical production. If one ought  to wait for old age to risk a word about it, if one ought to wait for the experience of a violent disease in order to mention it, if one ought to experience every sorrow or perturbed state of mind in order to speak of it – one would find that what is left to write of is very little, and indeed many things might not ne written at all obviously as the person who experienced them might not be the person talented to analyse and express them.

    Guess work therefore is not to be avoided by any means in a wholesale manner; but of course it must be used cautiously. Guess work indeed – when intelligently directed – loses much of it riskiness, if the user transforms it into a sort of hypothetical experience. This is easier in the description of a battle, of a state of society, of a scenery. By the imagination (and by the help of incidents experienced and remotely or nearly connected) the user can transport himself into the midst of the circumstances and can thus create an experience. The same remark holds good – though it presents more difficulty – in matters of feeling.

    I should remark that all philosophers necessarily work largely ion guess work – guess work illustrated and elaborated by careful thought and weighing of causes and effects, I mean knowledge of other reliable experience.

    Moreover  the poet in writing of states of mind can also have the sort of experience furnished by his knowledge of himself and that therefore very reliable gauging of what he would feel were he placed in the imagined conditions.

    Also care should be taken not to lose from sight that a state of feeling is true and false, possible and impossible at the same time, or rather by turns. And the poet – who, even when he works the most philosophically, remains an artist – gives one side: which does not mean that he denies the obverse, or even – thought perhaps this is stretching the point – that he wishes to imply that the side he treats is the truest, or the one oftener true. He merely describes a possible and an occurring state of feeling – sometimes very transient, sometimes of some duration.

    Very often the poet’s work has but a vague meaning: it is a suggestion: the thoughts are to be enlarged by future generations or by his immediate readers: Plato said that poets utter great meanings without realising them themselves.

    I have said above that the poet always remains an artist. As an artist he should avoid – without denying – the seemingly highest – seemingly, for it is quite proved that it is the highest – philosophy of the absolute worthlessness of effort and of the inherent contradiction in every human utterance. If he deny it: he must work. If he accept it: he must work still, though with the consciousness of his work being but finally toys, – at best toys capable of being utilised for some worthier or better purpose, or the very handling of which prepares for some worthier or better work.

    Moreover let us consider the vanity of human things, for this is a clearer way of expressing what I have called «the worthlessness of effort and the inherent contradiction in every human utterance». For few natures, for very few, is it possible to – after accepting it – act accordingly, that is refrain from every action except such as subsistence demands. The majority must act; and though producing vain things their impulse to act and their obedience to it are not vain, because it is a following of nature, or of their nature. Their actions produce works, which can be divided into two categories, works of immediate utility and works of beauty. The poet  does the latter. As human nature has got a craving for beauty manifested in different forms – love, order in his surrounding, scenery, – he purveys to a need. Some work done in vain and the shortness of human life may declare all this vain; but seeing that we do not know then connection between the after life and this life, perhaps even this may be contested. But the mistake lies chiefly in this individualization. The work is not vain when we leave the individual and we consider the man. Here there is no death, at least no sure death: the result may perhaps be immense; there is no shortness of life, but an immense duration of it. So the absolute vanity disappears: at best only a comparative vanity may remain for the individual, but when the individual separates himself from his work and considers only the pleasure or the profit it has given him for a few years and then its vast importance for centuries and centuries even this comparative vanity disappears or vastly lessens.

    My method  of procedure for this Philosophical Scrutiny may be either by taking up the poems one by one and settling them at once, – following the lists an ticking each on the list as it is finished, or effacing it if vowed to destruction; or by considering them first attentively, reporting on them, making a batch of the reports, and afterwards working at them on the basis and in the sequence of the batch: that is the method of procedure of the Emendatory Work.

    It may also very well happen that the guess work or rather the intellectual insight into the feelings of others may result in the delineating of more interesting acts or conditions, than the mere relation of the personal experience of one individual. Moreover, – though this is a delicate matter – is not such study of others and penetration of others part of what I call «personal experience»? Does not this penetration – successful or not – influence the individual thought and create states of mind?


    Besides, one lives, one hears, and one understands; and the poems he writes, though not true to one’s actual life, are true to other lives (Το πρωτο φως των, Τειχη, Παραθυρα, Θερμοπυλαι) – not generally of course, but specially – and the reader to whose life the poem fits admits and feels the poem: which is proved by Xenopolos’ liking (Τειχη, Κερια) and Pap.’s (Κερια) and Tsocopoulos’s (Φωναι γλυκειαι). Nd when one lives, hears, and searches intelligently and tries to write wisely his work is bound, one may say, to fit some life.


    Perhaps Shakespeare  had never been jealous in his life, so he ought not to have written «Hamlet»; he never murdered, so he ought not to have written «Macbeth»!!!


       On Sunday (16 August 1903) I wrote some lines beginning «Σαν ερχεται καμμια ημερα η μια ωρα». I was absolutely sincere at the time. In fact the lines as they now stand are not good, because they have not been worked: it was throwing on paper an impression. In the evening of the very same day I was ill, and the lines seemed to me flat. Yet they were sincere: they had the necessary truthfulness for art. So is every sincerity to be laid aside, on account of the short duration of the feeling which prompts its expression. But then art is at a standstill; and speech is condemned – because what is always lasting? And things cannot and should not be lasting, for man would then be «all a piece» and stagnate in sentimental inactivity, in want of change.


    If a thought has been really true for a day, its becoming false the next day does not deprive it of its claim to verity. It may have been only a passing or a short lived truth, but is intense and serious it is worthy to be received, both artistically and philosophically.


25 November 1903


    Here is another example. No poems were sincerer than 2 «Ms», written during and immediately after the great crapulence of libations succeeding on my departure from Athens. Now, say that in time Ale. Mav. comes to be indifferent to me, like Sul. (I was very much in love with h. before my departure from Athens), or Bra.; will the poems – so true when they were made – become false? Certainly, certainly not. They will remain true in the past, and, though not applicable any more in my life, seeing that they may remind of a day and perhaps different impression, they will be applicable to feelings of other lives.

    The same therefore must apply to other works – really felt at the time. If even for one day, or one hour I felt like the man within «Walls», or like the man of «Windows» the poem is based on a truth, a short-lived truth, but which, for the very reason of having once existed, may repeat itself in another life, perhaps with as short duration, perhaps with longer. If «Thermopylae» fits but one life, it is true; and it may, indeed the probabilities are that it must.




    Verses reported on:


    Ετσι τελειωνει η υψλη προσπαθεια


    Ετσι πληρωνεται η μεγαλη προσπαθεια.


    My only doubt is whether I have not qualified too much; and yet one might say that the statement «ετσι τελειωνει η υψηλη προσπαθεια» is not exaggerated. The poem deals mainly with the domain of the theory translated into action. If a great artist or philosopher is not brought to quite the sane sacrifice, it may be said however that he also undergoes sacrifice in another way by his never being appreciated as is his meed during his lifetime, by even after his death a great part of his struggles and his toil being underrated or ignored, and by his making discoveries and laying foundations which, necessarily imperfect in his case, do not and cannot perhaps bring him honour or profit, but being perfected and brought to fruition by others bring those others – whose «προσπαθεια» has been but small – honour and profit. But, again, the poem deals with theory translated into action.  It deals with the pioneer, with the act, with the man – like in «Thermopylae» – of abnegation. An objection might be the way in which the word «υψηλη» seems to specify the superiority of this «προσπαθεια»  which deals, as I have stated, with practical effort; but is not this being too minute? And am I not contradicting myself now? Seeing that I have stated that the theoretical life, the life of the artist and the philosopher, have also their sacrifice, bitter and unjust.

    And also what if the translation into action is to be paid for in this way? Its results are good. And the glory and the merit remain to the theorist that is he who mastered out and who planned and thought out the salutary system, the ideal demeanour, which works for good even though in is carrying it out it demands sacrifices (fruitful in final consequence and happy) in the actor; it demands to be applied by a hero.

    Without the teaching, the sacrifice (from which as much good will result, so much happiness) would rather take place; then hero, brave but unable to think, would be useless, no asset of profit to the world.

    And is not  the pawn’s fate, and the sense of the two last verses, merely symbolical of the pain exacted from every great effort for its lofty aims – sometimes is one form, sometimes in another: sometimes greater, sometimes less: but always to be paid: in sufferings, in humiliations, in surrender.

    «Παι και θυσιαζεται» I say. «Θυσιαις» are different varieties.

    And the «pawn» applies the thought and does the player’s action, because he can. He is the other work. He pays his pain in other fashions. He is no «pawn»; he acts as he can and he must.

    The theorist is of course the great benefactor. The millions that will be saved by the retreat of the «queen» owe their happiness to them. To the hero thanks are due too; he by his sacrifice realises or rather hastens the good planned. But even without him the good planned would have been realised. Only it would take a longer time, it would have to traverse paths toilsome and troublesome. His sacrifice is honourable to him in the first degree; it is profitable to the community; but the theorist is a great and honourable benefactor still


    In fact, the theorist is rather not considered in this poem. We are praising the heroic action which carries theory into effect. Great or different, the theorist is to be considered apart.


    Great were the legislators of Sparta who made out the System out of which Leonida’s sacrifice came.


    But what about great history translated into action and bringing reward, that is, the complete happiness and success to which a human being can aspire. The leaders of American and Greek rebellions, Pasteur, Garibaldi, and a few other instances.

    All the objections former to that [xxx] marked are I find groundless.

    [xxx] is the only logical one.

    It may not be unsurmountable but as I had to pass to other work, and had already spent almost a month on considering the poem, I decided to leave out the puzzling two lines and to insert in their place the line


Ετσι η ωραια προσπαθεια το απαιτουσε


And to «renvoyer» the whole thing for consideration when «The Scrutiny» is taken up.