Cavafy, Gibbon and Byzantium

Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης (1863 – 1933)
α. όλα β. έργα γ. μελέτες / άρθρα δ. ξενόγλωσσα



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Cavafy, Gibbon and Byzantium

G.P. Savidis

Thirty-six years ago, the organizers of this Congress had a brilliant idea, which they do not seem to have pursued ever since. As the Third International Congress of Byzantine Studies was being held in Athens, they invited Costis Palamas ―not merely in his temporary capacity as President of the Academy, but mainly as the most respected living poet of his country― and asked him to give a talk on the Byzantine Heritage in the Poetry of Modern Greece1.
In view of the fact that Palamas’ most ambitious composition (The King’s Flute, 1910) owed a great deal to the labours of Gustave Schlumberger and of Charles Diehl (who, incidentally, took the chair at that particular session), both choices ―of speaker and subject― were equally apt for illustrating one of the most vital achievements of modern Byzantine scholarship: namely, the fertilization of contemporary art and literature. Since the example of William Butler Yeats may already have sprung to your mind, I need only mention Angelos Sikelianos’ explicit debt to Henri Grégoire, and George Seferis’ less obvious but acknowledged debt to Sir Steven Runciman.
Now, to return to the Third Congress and, eventually, to the protagonist of this paper, I submit to you, as a pleasantly idle speculation, the following question: What might have been C. P. Cavafy’s subject, if the organizers had considered him sufficiently important and respectable to deserve an invitation?
Not that the subject should have mattered very much ― as long as the result would have been as described, ten years before, by E. M. Forster: “… an immense complicated yet shapely sentence, full of parentheses that never get mixed and of reservations that really do reserve; a sentence that moves with logic to its foreseen end, yet to an end that is always more vivid and thrilling than one foresaw. (…) It deals with the tricky behaviour of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in 1096, or with olives ―their possibilities and price―, or with the fortunes of friends, or George Eliot, or the dialects of the interior of Asia Minor. It is delivered with equal ease in Greek, English, or French. And despite its intellectual richness and human outlook, despite the matured charity of its judgments, one feels that it (…) stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet”2.
But, organizers perforce stand at a different angle and congress-programmes have to be printed well in advance; therefore, subjects are an inescapable formality, however informal the treatment. So, let me hope that Cavafy would have chosen, or accepted, as his subject: Gibbon and Byzantium.
Why Gibbon and Byzantium?
In elementary tactics, an enemy divided is more easily disposed of. Therefore, please allow me to tackle the second part of this question first: Why Byzantium?
At first sight, nothing could be more natural for a Greek whose family origins were from Constantinople and who himself spent there three crucial years of his youth. But, as Mr Seferis observed, the poet’s geography is not so simple: it took Cavafy twenty-five years of creative trial and error to discover the city in which he had been born and where he had already spent most of his life, namely Alexandria3. Similarly, it would be both literally and figuratively true to say that he took temporary refuge in Byzantium, after having been partly educated in England and after having re-settled in Alexandria. And this is where Gibbon comes in.
Yet, before turning to Cavafy’s Gibbon, permit me to elaborate briefly on my last point.
Until quite recently, we knew through a sometimes careless witness that Cavafy, just before the Third Congress, had stated that at the beginning of his poetic career he had considered the Byzantine period as a possible setting for his historical poems, but had eventually abandoned this plan because that period proved to be an unsuitable setting for his characters4.
This seemed a baffling statement, for ―if we except the (in any case) mature poems set in the early Christian or late pagan period― we knew of eight compositions that undoubtedly pertained to what Cavafy called “our glorious Byzantinism”, none of which however appeared before 19125: that is, when the poet was 49 years old.
Now, thanks to Cavafy’s unpublished papers, we know this statement to have been quite accurate: it refers, in fact, to eleven other poems, written between 1888 and 18926, which is the year when he published a short essay οn the Byzantine poets7. Nothing survives οf these early poems but their abbreviated titles, grouped in a rough thematic catalogue, which includes such obviously Parnassian headings as: Aρχαίαι Hμέραι (Αntique Days), Aι Aρχαί του Χριστιανισμού (The Beginnings of Christianity), and Βυζαντιναί Hμέραι (Βyzantine Days).
The titles οf the poems grouped under the heading οf Βυζαντιναί Hμέραι8, in conjunction with the few surviving texts οf poems belonging to the other two Parnassian headings, give us a more or less concrete idea οf their subject-matter and treatment: Ευδοκίας (or Ευδοξίας) Αυγούστας Έπαινος, H επί Ειρήνης Αναστύλωσις των Εικόνων, Κάρολος ο Μέγας, Aι Aξιώσεις του Πάπα (The Demands of the Pope), H Aνάκτησις της Κρήτης (The Recovery οf Crete), Προ της Iερουσαλήμ, H Άλωσις της Νικαίας (or Νικοπόλεως), O Καλός (or Κακός) Iππότης, O Γραικός Στρατιώτης, O Χρεμετισμός του Ίππου (The Neigh οf the Horse), «Θέλω θανείν μάλλον ή ζην»9 ―in other words: histοrical vignettes or anecdotes, versified with care but rather frigidΙy, without the inimitable dramatic or ironic mastery which Cavafy was gradually to acquire only after his discoνery of Alexandria and Antioch as valid objective cοrrelatives, certainly through his thoughtful assimilation οf Browning and very probably as a result οf his critical reading οf Gibbon.
But why Gibbon?
Cavafy’s familiarity with that “rational voluptuary” ―so, we are told, Gibbon would describe himself10― is amply testified by his own set of The Decline and Fall in the 1820 edition. All twelve νolumes of this precious set are literally stuffed with the poet’s reading notes ―that is, not οnly οn the margins, but chiefly οn slips οf paper signed with his initials. These usually irritated and sometimes irritating notes may be confidently dated between 1896 and 1899. And the cause οf Cavafy’s irritatiοn ―as one may well imagine― is Gibbon’s attitude towards Rome and Christianity11.
Ι suppose it must have, by now, become sufficiently clear that Ι do not intend to tax your patience much further, by attempting here the fascinating parallel (in Plutarch’s sense) of the affinities and divergences of two so strongly individual writers living in such vastly different times. Gibbon, for instance, would never have agreed with Cavafy that the notorious Christians of Antioch were much closer than Julian ―with his puritanical paganism― to the spirit of Hellenism. Also, Cavafy could not possibly share Gibbon’s admiration for the Roman Empire, which in his mature poems he seems to identify with the British Empire of his day.
Nor do I mean to imply that Gibbon was one of Cavafy’s main sources for his Byzantine or other historical compositions: we know that the poet was at least equally familiar with, and much more sympathetic to, Paparrigopoulos’ History of the Greek Nation12, and that he made free use of more modern and specialized works, such as Bury’s and Bouché-Leclercq’s, reading them side-by-side with the original sources. And one might add that he must have hit upon his favourite target, Julian, much more likely through the dramas of Kleon Rangabe (1877) and Ibsen (1873), than when he read Gibbon.
What I am trying to suggest is, I think, more important: that Gibbon ―with his unique and unparalled combination of erudition, philosophy, and literature― provided Cavafy, at the decisive period of the poet’s life, with exactly the right kind of stimulant that was needed to help him broaden his antiquarian interests into his own view of European civilization, and to discard his Parnassian or Decadent Byzantinism in order to become one of the most original voices of our time. What is certain, is that some four years after reading Gibbon, in 1903, Cavafy made a merciless purge of his poetry, involving what he called “a philosophical scrutiny” of every single poem he had written so far.
Furthermore, if we agree with Professor Momigliano that “the task of rewriting Gibbon has been left to the twentieth century”13, then I suggest that Cavafy has to some extent contributed to this task of yours: surely, it cannot be an accident that Professor Jones’ magnum opus14 was recently reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement under a title borrowed from Cavafy’s best known poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians” ―a poem written during the period he was pondering over Gibbon’s shrewd but overly optimistic guess that “Europe is secure from any future irruption of Barbarians; since, before they can conquer, they must cease to be barbarous”15.
Of course, I must admit that these suggestions of mine could not be proved ―not even if, thirty-six years ago, Cavafy had been invited to the Congress of Byzantine Studies.

1. [«Η Βυζαντινή κληρονομία εις την νέαν ελληνικήν ποίησιν», Νέα Εστία, 8, 15 Νοεμβρίου 1930, p. 1180-1184 = Άπαντα, 8, 561-570.]

2. [«The Poetry of C. Ρ. Cavafy», The Athenaeum, 25 April 1919, p. 247 = Pharos and Pharillon, The Hogarth Press, 1923, p. 75.]

3. [Γιώργος Σεφέρης, Δοκιμές, Α΄, p. 412-413.]

4. [See Αθανασίου Γ. Πολίτου, Ο Ελληνισμός και η νεωτέρα Αίγυπτος, Β΄, Αλεξάνδρεια-Αθήναι, 1930, p. 451.]

5. [The eight poems, in chronological order of first publication, are:
a. Στην Eκκλησία: published in 1912, but first written in 1892, rewritten in 1901 and 1906.
b. Μανουήλ Κομνηνός: publ. 1915, written 1905.
c. Ίμενος: publ. 1919, first written in 1915 as a personal poem under the title of Αγάπησέ την πιότερο and without any reference to Βyzantine history (see Ανέκδοτα Ποιήματα, 1968, p. ι΄ or Μικρά Καβαφικά Α΄, p. 110-11) and rewritten in 1919.
d. Άννα Κομνηνή: publ. 1920, written 1917.
e. Βυζαντινός Άρχων, εξόριστος, στιχουργών: publ. 1921, written 1921.
f. Ο Ιωάννης Καντακουζηνός υπερισχύει: publ. 1924, written?
g. Από υαλί χρωματιστό: publ. 1925, written?
h. Άννα Δαλασσηνή: publ. 1927, written?
Three more or less finished poems can now be added to the above, with the caveat that they were first published in 1968 (see Ανέκδοτα Ποιήματα, p. 131, 163, 183 and the cοrrespοnding notes p. 235-236, 244, 248-249):
i. Θεόφιλος Παλαιολόγος: first written in? with the title «Θέλω θανείν μάλλον ή ζην», rewritten in 1903 and again probably c. 1914-1915.
j. Φυγάδες: written 1914.
k. Πάρθεν: written 1921.]

6. [For the terminus a quo, see Σαββίδης, Eκδόσεις, p. 107; for the terminus ad quem, see below, n. 9.]

7. [«Οι Βυζαντινοί ποιηταί», Τηλέγραφος (Αλεξανδρείας), 11/23 Απριλίου 1892 = Πεζά, p. 43-50.]

8. [See a photograph of Cavafy’s manuscript in Diana Haas, «”Στον ένδοξό μας Βυζαντινισμό”: σημειώσεις για ένα στίχο του Καβάφη», Διαβάζω, Αφιέρωμα, p. 79. Miss Haas’ paper is excerpted from a chapter of her unpublished doctoral dissertation; read in conjunction with her masterly study of Cavafy’s Αι Αρχαί του Χριστιανισμού (Χάρτης, Αφιέρωμα, p. 589-608), it is obviously the first fully documented approach to the subject ―cf. Β. Φ. Χρηστίδη, Ο Καβάφης και το Βυζάντιο, 1958: a remarkably precocious monograph, even though it seems unaware of the Byzantine dimension of «Ίμενος».]

9. [Of these eleven titles, only two can be dated precisely: Η Ανάκτησις της Κρήτης (written in November 1891) and Ευδ. Αυγούστας Έπαινος (written in July 1892); two more can be dated at a further stage of composition: Η επί Ειρήνης Αναστύλωσις των Εικόνων was rewritten in March 1901 and Θέλω θανείν etc. in March 1903 (see above, n. 5). Since Cavafy’s chronological catalogues (see Μικρά Καβαφικά B΄, p. 51-64) do not date the first composition of nine of the titles listed under the thematic title Βυζαντιναί Ημέραι, it seems reasonable to assume that these poems were composed between 1888 (see n. 6 above) and June 1891.]

10. [See Arnaldo Momigliano, Studies in Historiography, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966, p. 55.]

11. [See Diana Haas, «Cavafy’s Reading Notes οn Gibbon’s Decline and Fall», Folia Neohellenica, (Αmsterdam), IV, 1982, p. 25-96.]

12. [See Περίδης, Βίος, p. 81 and Haas, ibid., p. 91-92.]

13. [Οp. cit., p. 54.]

14. [Α.Η.Μ. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1964.]

15. [Quoted by Momigliano, ibid., p. 50.]

G.P. Savidis, “Cavafy, Gibbon and Byzantium” (1966). In Μικρά καβαφικά, Α΄, Ερμής, 1985