Cavafy : Irony in the Poems of Cavafy


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Irony in Cavafy’s Poems

 

although the term ‘irony’ is used quite a lot with reference to certain authors, Thomas Hardy in particular, when I was preparing to give a talk to some friends about Cavafy, another author who is supposed to exemplify it, I realized I didn’t really know what it meant, or couldn’t pin it down anyway.

 

IRONY :  1. The mildly sarcastic use of words to imply the opposite of what they normally mean.  2. A situation or result that is the direct opposite of what was expected or intended. (Greek eironeia)”        

                                                                      (COLLINS) 

 

            Irony in conversation depends on tone and expression and so cannot easily be communicated in writing. In any case, it is rarely used nowadays : it belongs to an era where conversation was cultivated and nuances were noted. Today people are more likely to be openly insulting if they don’t like someone; moreover, the twosidedness of irony is too subtle for today’s one-dimensional world.

            Writers concentrate on irony of situation, not irony of expression. The principal feature, as the dictionary points out, is the co-existence or rapid succession of two opposite or contradictory elements. The classic example of irony is that of the hero who, precisely by attempting to avoid his or her fate, puts his head in the noose. Thus Oedipus who, warned by the Delphic Oracle that he was fated to kill his father and marry his mother, decides not to return to Corinth where he lives with his supposed parents and, shortly afterwards, comes across his real father, Laius, whom he kills in the equivalent of a modern dispute between motorists. Worse still in a way, when enthroned as King of Thebes with Jocasta as his wife, he makes a big show of wanting at all costs to find out the guilty man in the city who, supposedly, has brought the plague on its inhabitants as punishment from the gods. Bit by bit, he realizes with horror that the guilty man is himself. The situation would not perhaps be so ironical if it was part of a chronicle or history : it seems important that the audience, who are in the know, should be there to watch Oedipus going towards his doom full of good intentions.   

            The Greeks seem to have invented irony as an attitude and  dramatic device : there are few other examples that come to mind in mythology and even Shakespeare and the Elizabethans rarely if ever use it. In principle, there is tragic irony in Lear giving away his kingdom to his daughters who do not care for him and withholding her part from the one who does. Chekov would have exploited such a situation, but Lear is so objectionable that one feels he gets what he deserves — and there is no irony in that. Irony lends itself more to tragic-comedy than to tragedy as such — and there are certainly moments when Oedipus Rex teeters on the verge of black humour, as the author undoubtedly realized.

            Cavafy is the poet of irony par excellence. A fairly crude but nonetheless effective example of ‘irony of situation’ is Nero’s Deadline.

 

“Nero wasn’t at all worried when he heard

What the Delphic Oracle had to say:

‘Beware the age of seventy-three’.

Plenty of time to enjoy himself.

He’s thirty. The deadline

The god has given him is quite enough

To cope with future dangers.

 

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome —

But wonderfully tired from that journey

Devoted entirely to pleasure:

Theatres, garden-parties, stadiums,

Evenings in the cities of Achaia…

And, above all, the delight of naked bodies.

 

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba

Secretly musters and drills his army —

Galba, now in his seventy-third year.”

 

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

 

            Once again, it seems necessary for there to be a ‘god’s eye view’ : the irony of the situation is not apparent to Nero, nor even to Galba, but only to the historian or to the reader of the poem who is put in the know by Cavafy.

            Both these examples, those of Oedipus and Nero, are examples of good fortune turning to bad — I have wondered whether there can be irony in bad fortune turning to good. In the film Les Enfants du Paradis the bandit Larcenaire and two associates waylay the successful actor in his dressing room in order to extort money from him, perhaps kill him. But when asked for money, the famous actor hands them a great wad of notes saying, “If I knew you I’d maybe let you have everything I’ve got, but since I don’t, we’ll share the takings”. The upshot is  they become his friends and offer to be his seconds in a duel he is to fight in the morning. Is this irony? I think so, but it is a rare example. Almost all examples of irony of situation are of the opposite kind. It would be ‘ironical’ if I managed to pick a quarrel for no reason with the very man turns out to be the only person who could help me out in Ia mess I  shortly afterwards get myself into. But it would not, I think, be ‘ironical’ if I render some service to a complete stranger who turns out to be a long-lost relative in disguise testing me out to see if I deserved to inherit  his vast fortune. Still, if this were a scene in a play or film where the audience knew the identity of the stranger, I suppose it could be called ‘dramatic irony’.  

            A much subtler example of ‘irony of situation’ is On the Stairs.

“As I was going down those ill-famed stairs

you were coming through the door, and for a second

I saw your unfamiliar face and you saw me.

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 pleasure any more than I did.

 

And yet the love you were looking for, I had to give you;

the love In 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 we both hid ourselves, flustered.”

 

(translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

 

            But why is this meeting ironic (which it certainly is) rather than tragic — or for that matter ridiculous?

            History, or the part of history that interests Cavafy, is deeply ironic, because of the glaring contrast between expectations and mundane realities, or between memories of past greatness and present mediocrity. Heroes such as Hercules, Theseus or Achilles  do not appear in Cavafy’s poems, not because he despises them in the rather suspect modern ‘anti-heroic’ manner, but simply because he views the situation in which they are placed as psychologically and morally uninteresting, as too one-dimensional. In a sense these heroes are never really tested : they never grow old and feeble, never have to look defeat in the face. Very few of the historical personages  who appear in Cavafy’s poems are famous figures, and even when they are, we do not see them at their zenith :  Mark Anthony only makes an appearance at the moment when the god (Dionysus) abandons him. As an example of Spartan style we are not given Leonidas (the hero of Thermopylae) but Queen Cratesiclea whom no one has ever heard of  :

 

“King Cleomenes did not know, he did not dare —

He did not know how to put into words such a request

To his own mother: that  Ptolemy had demanded

That she be sent to Egypt also, and be held a hostage there

As a guarantee of their agreement;

A very humiliating, unseemly matter.

And he was always about to speak; and he always demurred

And he always started to say it and always faltered.

 

But this superior woman understood him

(besides she had already heard some rumours about it)

And she encouraged him to explain.

And she laughed and said certainly she would go.

And indeed she rejoiced that she was able

Still to be useful to Sparta in her old age.

 

As for the humiliation — well, she was indifferent.

Assuredly he, a son of Lagus, born only yesterday,

Was unable to understand Spartan pride;

And so his request could not really

Humilate a Great Lady as

Illustrious as she, the mother of a Spartan king.”

 

                                    (translated by Rae Dalven)  

 

            Historical characters like Queen Cratesiclea manage to turn the tables on destiny — by accepting it with equanimity rather than by defying, let alone reversing it (which they know to be impossible). The gods (or the Romans)  always win  but it is still possible for humans to gain a moral advantage : the unexpected reaction to disaster of persons such as Mark Anthony or King Demetrios takes the fates by surprise, knocks them off balance, as it were. 

 

 “When the Macedonians abandoned him

And proved they preferred Pyrrhus,

King Demetrios did not, so it is said, behave

In the least like a king. He went

And took off his robes of gold,

And cast off his purple shoes.

He dressed hurriedly

In simple clothes and went off

Behaving like an actor

Who when the performance is over

Changes his clothes and departs.”

 

                                    (translated by Rae Dalven) 

 

            Cavafy’s Greece is not that of Pericles or the Parthenon, nor even that of Alexander the Great, it is above all Greece during the Roman and even Christian period that engages Cavafy. The civilization is in decline but, Cavafy, a fervent Hellene, shows that the Greek spirit was never greater than when the entire people had lost out militarily and politically — but not aesthetically and morally — to the all-conquering Romans, or, in terms of belief, to the all-conquering Galilean.

            The supreme example of Cavafy’s irony is directed against himself. There are one or two poems — but not that many — where Cavafy  protests against society’s attitude towards homosexuals. But even here he is far-sighted enough to anticipate that all this inner torment and soul-searching which he obviously lived through will one day appear hardly worth talking about. This is how I interpret “The Rest I Will Tell To Those Down In Hades”

 

“ ‘Indeed,’ said the proconsul, closing the book,

 ‘This line is beautiful and very true.

Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.

How much we will tell down there, how much,

and how different we’ll appear.

What we protect up here like sleepless guards,

wounds and secrets locked inside us,

protect with such great anxiety day after day,

we’ll reveal freely and clearly down there.’

 

‘You might add,’ said the sophist, half smiling,

if they talk about things like that down there,

if they bother at all about them any more.’ ”

 

            (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)  

       

                                Sebastian Hayes 

 

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