On The Stairs
On the Stairs
—Constantine P. Cavafy
As I was going down those ill-famed stairs
you were coming in the door, and for a second
I saw your unfamiliar face and you saw mine.
Then I hid so you wouldn’t see me again, and you
hurried past me, hiding your face,
and slipped inside the ill-famed house
where you couldn’t have found sensual pleasure any more
than I did.
And yet the love you were looking for, I had to give you;
the love I was looking for—so your tired,
knowing eyes implied—you had to give me.
Our bodies sensed and sought each other;
our blood and skin understood.
But, flustered, we both hid ourselves.
Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
“Why did our two consuls and the praetors come out today in their crimson embroidered togas; why did they don bracelets with so many amethysts and rings resplendent with glittering emeralds; why do they hold precious staffs today, beautifully wrought in silver and gold? - Because the barbarians are arriving today, and such things dazzle barbarians.”—From Waiting for the Barbarians by Constantine P. Cavafy
When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you.
Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge.
Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.
— constantine p. cavafy (trans. rae dalven)
When the Watchman Saw the Light
Winter, summer, the watchman sat there looking out
from the roof of Atreus’ palace. Now he has
good news to report. In the distance he saw the fire light up.
And he’s happy; besides, the drudgery’s over now.
It’s hard to sit there night and day
in heat and cold, looking out for a fire to appear
on the peak of Arachnaion. Now the longed-for signal
has appeared. Yet when happiness
comes, it brings less joy
than one expected. But at least
this much has been gained: we’ve rid ourselves
of hope and expectation. Many things will happen
to the house of Atreus. No need to be wise
to guess this now the watchman
has seen the light. So let’s not exaggerate.
The light is good; and those coming are good,
their words and actions also good.
And let’s hope all goes well. But
Argos can do without the house
of Atreus. Ancient houses are not eternal.
Of course many people will have much to say.
We should listen. But we won’t be deceived
by words such as Indispensable, Unique, and Great.
Someone else indispensable and unique and great
can always be found at a moment’s notice.
This is the poem I read when I want to quit:
When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon - you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.
Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.
Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.
~Constantine P Cavafy
“That we’ve broken their statues, that we’ve driven them out of their temples, doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead. O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you, their souls still keep your memory. When an August dawn wakes over you, your atmosphere is potent with their life, and sometimes a young ethereal figure, indistinct, in rapid flight, wings across your hills. ”—
Constantine P. Cavafy
The City | Constantine P. Cavafy
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
The city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.
(tr. Edmund Keely)