Cavafy’s “beautiful young men” theme frequently crosses with his other great concern, Greek history. “In an Old Book” is about the discovery of a watercolor of a nude young man, “those ideal limbs shaped for bed,” in “an old book - / almost a hundred years old,” the kind of book Cavafy would pillage for his poems, which are often Browning-like monologues.
from In the Year 200 B.C.
And from this marvelous pan-Hellenic expedition,
triumphant, brilliant in every way,
celebrated on all sides, glorified,
incomparable, we emerged:
the great new Hellenic world. (1931)
The expedition in the first line is that of Alexander the Great, the creator of Hellenistic Greece; the reason, in some distant way, that a Greek like Constantine Cavafy lived in Egypt. The speaker is an antiquarian commenting on an inscription over a century after Alexander’s conquest, during the end of a long, slow decline from a cultural peak – from several peaks. A few years later, the Romans will conquer and absorb Greece. This history, the date in the title, and the speaker’s failure to understand his own history, is the point of the poem. Ironist.
“To understand the reasons for this long-drawn-out decline [of the Hellenic world] is one of the major problems of world history,” the classicist E. R. Dodds wrote in 1949 (The Greeks and the Irrational, Ch. VIII, p. 244). Cavafy wrote many poems on this theme, with settings and characters ranging from Homer’s heroes to the end of Byzantine Greece outside the walls of Constantinople. His poems frequently have dates in the title. Cavafy expected his audience, which was just a few close friends, to know what he was writing about.
from A Byzantine Nobleman in Exile Composing Verses
… incredibly bored,
it’s not altogether unfitting to amuse myself
writing six- and eight-line verses,
to amuse myself politicizing myths
of Hermes and Apollo and Dionysos,
or the heroes of Thessaly and the Peloponnese… (1921)
This poem is about the decline of learning, the decline of poetry. Only this poet has any standards anymore, or so he thinks.
His most startling poem of decadence is an earlier one, written in 1898, “Waiting for the Barbarians.” The poem begins:
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?One speaker asks, the other answers, always with the same answer – why bother to do anything, the barbarians are coming.
The barbarians are due here today.
The poem ends:
Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the street and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thoughts?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
This must be among the boldest conceits in 19th century poetry, as much about psychology as history, as much individual as cultural.