Unlike most poets, Cavafy has been so abundantly translated in English that you can take many different journeys to discover him. One approach would be to sidestep the book-length translations for a while and enter Cavafy’s work through the many poets who have admired him enough to attempt their own versions of individual poems. (Unfortunately, no Anglophone poet of stature has undertaken to translate a book-length edition of Cavafy’s poetry.) These versions will tell you how his poems have affected the most creative imaginations and give you a poet’s interpretation—elliptical, implicit, of course—of what he means and achieves. I have gone through many more poems than those listed here, looking for pieces that added something new to my understanding of Cavafy, but the number of works inspired by him is so large that I am certain to have missed a few.
Once you have a poet’s understanding of Cavafy, return and read C. P. Cavafy: The Canon, translated by Stratis Haviaras, with a foreword by Seamus Heaney. The Oxford World Classics translation by Evangelos Sachperoglou also has its strong points (Peter Mackridge’s introduction is excellent). C. P. Cavafy: The Complete Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, is more a classical historian’s edition. I would use it for further study and as a reference text containing historical information and poems not available in other editions. (Most of these “unfinished,” “repudiated,” and early poems are minor works.) With the world’s lavish attention to all things Cavafian, you will find your own version of Cavafy to admire, just as you will find your own Ithaca.
Here is a list of recommended versions of Cavafy by poets, poems directly inspired by Cavafy that capture some aspect of his sensibility, and a few poems that suggested to me the ways in which some of the best poets may have incorporated what they learned from Cavafy into their work:
James Merrill: “The Afternoon Sun,” “On an Italian Shore,” “Days of 1908,” from Collected Poems. (“After Cavafy,” in the same volume, is an unfortunate and dated version of “Waiting for the Barbarians.”) His essay, “Unreal Citizen,” in part a perceptive review of the Keeley and Sherrard translation, is available in his Collected Prose. Merrill also wrote several poems that use Cavafy’s rubric “Days of [insert year].” It is an interesting exercise to read through them and explore how the Cavafian title stimulated Merrill’s imagination. I especially admire the moving and beautiful “Days of 1994,” written at the end of his life.
Don Paterson: “Three Poems after Cavafy,” including “One Night,” “The Boat,” and “The Bandaged Shoulder,” from Landing Light, and “The Bowl-Maker (after Cavafy)” from Rain. Superb interpretations by the Scottish poet.
The Bowl-Maker after Cavafy On this wine-bowl beaten from the purest silver, made for Herakleides’ white-walled home where everything declares his perfect taste— I’ve placed a flowering olive and a river, and at its heart, a beautiful young man who let the water cool his naked foot forever. O memory: I prayed to you that I might make his face just as it was. What a labour that turned out to be. He fell in Lydia fifteen years ago. —Don Paterson
Seamus Heaney: “The rest I’ll speak of to the ones below in Hades,” from District and Circle. In Heaney’s foreword to the Stratis Haviaras translation, he wrote acutely, “There is an indeflectible, locked-on quality to Cavafy’s gaze, and what he gazes at he goes towards, calmly and clear-sightedly, more coroner than commentator, equally disinclined to offer blame or grant the benefit of the doubt.”
David Ferry: “Thermopylae (Cavafy, ‘Thermopylae’)” and “In Despair (Cavafy, ‘En Apognosi’),” from Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations. Graceful translations. Here is one of Ferry’s versions, set in fixed-width font to help preserve the unusual layout (a left margin and a middle margin):
In Despair Cavafy, “En Apognosi” He’s gone from him forever, and ever since he’s sought his lips on the lips of every boy he goes to bed with, wanting to fool himself into thinking those are the very lips of the boy he gave himself to, long ago. But he's gone from him forever, he’s never coming back. He’s gone from him forever as if he never was, because, he said, he wanted to save himself from the shameful pleasure, unnatural pleasure of what they did together, the shameful pleasure he wanted to save his body from. There was still time, he said, to save himself, he said. He’s gone from him forever, as if he never was. He seeks, hallucinating, self-deluding, seeking on the lips of other boys the lips of him with whom that shameful pleasure he’d had he’ll never have again. —David Ferry
W. H. Auden: “Atlantis” is not a translation but a poem that makes clear the truth of what Auden said: “I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all.”1 It possesses some of the cadences of Cavafy’s “Ithaca” and uses one of my favorite tropes in Cavafy, the one about the little household gods in “The Footsteps.” Another Auden poem in this vein is “The Fall of Rome.” The “temple prostitutes,” “provincial towns,” and classical references lend such a strong Cavafian atmosphere that it’s hard not to picture the “unimportant clerk” (Cavafy was a clerk at the Egyptian Department of Irrigation) as the Greek poet himself, albeit transported to a Roman version of post-war America.
Yannis Ritsos: “Twelve Poems for Cavafy,” translated by Rae Dalven, in The Fourth Dimension: Selected Poems of Yannis Ritsos. A fascinating attempt by a fellow Greek poet to capture Cavafy, his sensibility and his legacy. As a poet who believes Cavafy “is blowing directly into the glass ear of eternity/an immortal word, entirely his own,” Ritsos may at times be too respectful, not quite finding the characteristic irony of his subject. But Cavafy’s legacy obviously weighs heavily on the Greek poet, who invokes the sword of Nemesis to clear poetic space in the poem’s strange and violent conclusion.
Lawrence Durrell: Some “free translations” of Cavafy’s poems appear in Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet: “The City” and “The God Abandons Antony” at the end of Justine; “The Afternoon Sun,” “Far Away” (also known as “Long Ago”), “One of Their Gods,” and “Che Fece … Il Gran Rifiuto” at the end of Clea. These lovely interpretations are among my favorites, honing emotions that more literal translations only flail at. The poem “Cavafy,” somewhat dated in its attitudes but clear and persuasive in describing what he values in the poet, appears in Durrell’s Collected Poems.
One of Their Gods Moving through the market-place of Seleukeia Towards the hour of dusk there came one, A tall, rare and perfectly fashioned youth With the rapt joy of absolute incorruptibility Written in his glance; and whose dark Perfumed head of hair uncombed attracted The curious glances of the passers-by. They paused to ask each other who he was, A Greek of Syria perhaps or some other stranger? But a few who saw a little deeper drew aside, Thoughtfully, to follow him with their eyes, To watch him gliding through the dark arcades, Through the shadow-light of evening silently Going towards those quarters of the town Which only wake at night in shameless orgies And pitiless debaucheries of flesh and mind. And these few who knew wondered which of Them he was, And for what terrible sensualities he hunted Through the crooked streets of Seleukeia, A shadow-visitant from those divine and hallowed Mansions where They dwell. —Lawrence Durrell
Richard Howard: “To Constantine Cavafy,” in Without Saying. A delicious and ultimately profound meditation on Cavafy, art, and his early poem, “Oedipus,” which was inspired by a newspaper description of Gustave Moreau’s painting Oedipus and the Sphinx.
Louise Glück: Of contemporary American poets, Glück may be the one who most harmoniously assimilates Cavafy’s style and sensibility, in her chastened diction, in her cosmopolitan and fateful sense of life, in her internalized account of ancient settings and myths. I hear Cavafy in many places in her work, most obviously in classically themed poems like “The Triumph of Achilles” and “Roman Study” but also in a more contemporary “love” poem like “Departure” (in Meadowlands), which possesses the sense of enraptured loss that characterizes Cavafy’s love poems, or in her clear-eyed affection for the aging body in “Crossroads” (in A Village Life), which darkens the nostalgia of Cavafy’s “Body, Remember.”
John Ash: “The Gods in Their Wisdom,” a version of the poem known as “To Have Taken the Trouble” or “Should Have Taken the Trouble,” is wonderfully energetic, capturing an antic tone unusual for Cavafy. Ash, an English poet who has lived in Istanbul and written about Byzantium, includes a dozen or so of these interpretations in a section called “After Cavafy” from his collection In the Wake of the Day.
Carolyn Kizer: “The Oration (after Cavafy),” from Cool, Calm, and Collected: Poems 1960-2000. A poem, set at Christ’s crucifixion, that pleasurably captures Cavafy’s ironies and perhaps the influence of Browning in his monologues.
George Seferis: “Days of June 1941” is worth looking at as a variation on Cavafy by an acclaimed fellow Greek poet. The last stanza, in particular, in both Rex Warner’s and Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s translations, calls to mind Cavafy.
Karl Kirchwey: “In the House of the Soul,” from In the Palace of Jove, is a stately, cadenced translation.
Marilyn Chin: “The Barbarians Are Coming,” from The Phoenix Gone, the Terrace Empty. A version of “Waiting for the Barbarians” that combines Cavafy’s phrasings with frontier tropes from classical Chinese poetry.
Robert Pinsky: “An Old Man (after Cavafy),” from The Figured Wheel.
Marilyn Hacker: “Days of 1994: Alexandrians,” from Squares and Courtyards. Not a translation but a poem about mortality (AIDS and cancer) with a cosmopolitan setting that updates Cavafy: “Long arabesques of silver-tipped sentences/drift on the current of our two languages . . .” Her “Days of 1999” in Desesperanto evokes the Cavafian blend of aloneness, wanderlust, and desire for connection with a city.
Joseph Brodsky: The essay, “Pendulum’s Song,” in Less Than One, makes the case for why Brodsky called Cavafy his “favorite poet.”2 And yet little of Cavafy can be discerned in the English versions of Brodsky’s poems (Collected Poems in English); even a poem that one assumes would contain Cavafian attitudes, “Near Alexandria,” is almost entirely Brodskian—voluble, febrile, sardonic. “Cappadocia” and “Persian Arrow” come a bit closer, and “Daedalus in Sicily” and the sad and lovely “Homage to Girolamo Marcello” closer still.
Paul Muldoon: “Glaucus,” in Horse Latitudes, can be read as a variation on one of Cavafy’s ironic historical anecdotes, with Muldoon’s mordant comedy and ludic elaborations.
Anne Carson: “XLIV. Photographs: The Old Days,” in Autobiography of Red, is what Cavafy might sound like if he wrote after Stonewall.
Henri Cole: I hear something of Cavafy, his saturnine irony and his temporal juxtapositions, in “Marius, Son of Sarkis, Named for the Roman Consul, Savior from the Barbarians, Putative Husband of Mary Magdalene,” from The Look of Things.
Michael Longley: “Cavafy’s Desires.” This version of the brief poem “Desires” becomes, through the slight alteration of the title, a commentary on the personal aloneness that pervades Cavafy’s work. In Collected Poems.
Cavafy’s Desires Like corpses that the undertaker makes beautiful And shuts, with tears, inside a costly mausoleum— Roses at the forehead, jasmine at the feet—so Desires look, after they have passed away Unconsummated, without one night of passion Or a morning when the moon stays in the sky. —Michael Longley
Alfred Corn: “Infinity Effect at the Hôtel Soubise,” from All Roads at Once. Corn writes, “The poem probably owes something to Cavafy’s ‘Candles,’ but not, I think, to his ‘Chandelier.’”3 I was reminded more of the sojourner pathos of “The City” and “Ithaca.”
David Harsent: “Three Poems after Cavafy,” including “Afternoon Sun,” “At the Tobacconist’s Window,” and “The Art of Poetry,” from Night. Clipped, colloquial versions by the English poet.
Roy Fuller: “Variation on Cavafy” is inspired by the line about encountering the Odyssean monsters in “Ithaca.” From the collection From the Joke Shop.
Rachel Hadas: “Wish Granted,” from Halfway Down the Hall: New and Selected Poems, balances an expatriate’s homesickness with her love of her new home (Athens). The wish granted is the opening line of Cavafy’s “The City”: “You said, ‘I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.'”
Theo Dorgan: “Ithaca,” an autumnal sequel to Cavafy’s poem, captures the melancholy tone of the original. The Irish poet is an accomplished seafarer who lends a nautical specificity to Ulysses’ journey toward the Pillars of Hercules. In Dorgan’s collection Greek, which contains “Ithaca,” Cavafy is a living presence in modern Greece, haunting such poems as “Alexandros,” “Under a Blue and White Striped Awning,” and “Morning in the Cafeneion.”
Mark Jarman: “Cavafy in Redondo,” in Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems. Instead of the irony that Cavafy discovers in his characters’ proximity to historical events, Jarman finds the bewildered irony of an American poet yearning to make meaning from a place devoid of anything resonant or calamitous, except perhaps the Cold War missiles sprouting above the orange groves behind his childhood yard.
Derek Mahon: “Cavafy,” in The Snow Party, is a group of plain versions of a handful of Cavafy poems. “After Cavafy,” from Lives, updates “Waiting for the Barbarians” to an Irish setting.
Michael Donaghy: “Remembering Steps to Dances Learned Last Night,” from Shibboleth. The subject—a Cavafian hero on the fringes of violent and momentous events, in this case the slaughter of Penelope’s suitors—is rendered with wit and irony by the late poet, an American who lived in London for much of his shortened career.
Mahmoud Darwish: “Other Barbarians Will Come” is a version of “Waiting for the Barbarians” by the Palestinian poet. See the translation by Reuven Snir in his scholarly study of the poem from Mahmoud Darwish, Exile’s Poet: Critical Essays, edited by Hala Khamis Nassar and Najat Rahman.
Dana Gioia: “After a Line by Cavafy,” in Interrogations at Noon. Like Edgar Bowers’s great AIDS elegy, “John,” this is an elegy for the—I’m afraid, minor—poet John Finlay, who died in 1991.
Robert Liddell: “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “27 June 1906, 2 PM,” “The God Abandons Antony,” “Ithaca,” “Body Remember,” “The Afternoon Sun,” “Of Coloured Glass,” in Cavafy: A Biography. These fine translations are scattered through Liddell’s biography of Cavafy.
A note on the translations by Nikos Stangos and Stephen Spender: Because the book in which Stangos and Spender’s translations are collected, Fourteen Poems by C. P. Cavafy: Chosen and Illustrated with Twelve Etchings by David Hockney, contains the Hockney art works, it has become a rare edition selling for thousands of dollars at auction houses and is only available at a dozen or so university libraries around the world. Stephen Spender was a poet held in much esteem during his life, although he was always in the shadow of his friend Auden; Nikos Stangos, the late partner of the novelist David Plante, was best known as an estimable editor of art and poetry books in Britain. I haven’t read their book, but I liked a poem of theirs that I found, which translates the last stanzas of a Cavafy poem:
He Enquired after the Quality He enquired after the quality of the handkerchiefs and what they cost, in a low voice almost stifled by desire. And the answers that came followed suit abstracted, in a choking voice implying willingness. They kept on murmuring things about the goods—but their sole intent: to touch each other's hands across the handkerchiefs; to bring their face and their lips close together, as if by chance; a momentary contact of their limbs. Quickly and stealthily so that the owner of the shop sitting at the far end should not notice. —C. P. Cavafy (translated by Nikos Stangos and Stephen Spender)