Saturday, June 26, 2021


Edmund Keeley writes that when it came time to render Alexandrian poet Constantine Cavafy’s work into English, the poem “Parthen,” (meaning taken, or conquered), had to be excluded because its “essential linguistic preoccupations were beyond translation.” 


From the outset we have a tension in the poem between what Jusdanis terms the “foreign textual material and the poem proper.” Uniquely, for Cavafy, the poem is largely comprised of quotations from a Pontian dirge about the Fall of Constantinople and the tension that Cavafy introduces is a symptom of a complex and multifaceted conflict between textuality and orality that serves as a metaphor for the problems inherent in formulating a linguistic and national identity. 


The narrator commences by highlighting the irony between the performative oral tradition of folksong and the act of reading a printed and thus static and codified collection of folksong verses: 


“These days I have been reading demotic songs 

about the exploits and the wars of the klephts 

things that are appealing, our things, Greek things.” 


Significantly, the narrator in employing the word “our” appropriates the genre of demotic songs as belonging to an audience of like-minded or related kin. For Greek, the recipient community of this appropriation, he uses the term «Γραικικά» a term famously employed by Athanasios Diakos in his death throes, to assert his identity.  


This is a term infused with meaning. Cavafy’s narrator disdains to use the word «ελληνικά,» with its diverse connotations from ancient Greece, paganism, classical civilisation and beyond. He avoids use of the term «ρωμαίικα» with its references to the Byzantine tradition. Instead, he deliberately narrows the terms of reference of the identity of the tradition to which the folksongs belong, as something which he implies, pertains to the culture deriving from the Greek Revolution  (ie. mainland Greece) and its modern successors. 


The emphatic employment of the term is fraught with ambiguity, especially considering that it was the Romans who first used the term Graecoi to refer to the entirety of the Hellenes. This ambiguity and tension is further intensified as the narrator goes on to explain exactly which folksongs he is reading: 


“I have also been reading mournful songs about the loss of Constantinople.” 


What follows, is a rendition, partly through direct quotations, partly through the narrator’s own paraphrasing, of one of the most famous laments about the Fall of Constantinople. The use and then discarding of the quotations marks indicates just how much the narrator has assimilated the lament, which is rendered in an idiom close to Modern Greek  and considers it his own. In particular, the poet recounts how a divine voice ordered the priests to “cease reading your papers, close your Bibles. They have taken the City, they have taken it. They have taken Saloniki.” 


Here the tension between the spoken and the written word is broken by divine oral command and it is important to consider that the poem was written at a time when the debate as to whether the Greek tongue should be rendered in katharevousa or Modern Greek was raging in the motherland. 


Cavafy’s narrator intensifies escalates the tension of this debate by introducing another linguistic component: that of the Pontian dialect. In doing so, the narrator juxtaposes the traditional Pontian lament over the Fall of Constantinople, against “our” “Greek” folksongs, by asserting their superior emotive quality:  


“But of the others, the one that touched me most was the lay 

of Trapezounta, with its strange language 

and the sorrow of those distant Greeks 

who possibly still continued to believed they will be saved.” 


Undoubtedly, one of the most important elements of Cavafy's originality lies in his singular employment of words and motifs that pertain to the entire written history of the Greek language and his innovations can be ascribed not only to his geographical position as a writer whose first language was English, writing outside of Greece, albeit in a community of apodemic Greeks, but also to the fact that he was writing in a period when Greece was attempting to creating a new language and a new society out of a diverse range of socio-linguistic elements. 


Cavafy’s narrator’s assertion that the Pontian dialect dirge has for him, greatly emotional impact, should be seen in this light. Although the language of Trapezounta, he admits, is “strange,” the people who use it are also “Greeks,” albeit distant ones. Evidently, this constitutes a declaration that these people, regardless how strange their language may appear to the Greeks of the Greek state, are just as “Greek,” as any other “Greek.” This is why he again uses the term «Γραικών», underlying his contention that the Greek experience cannot be narrowly defined but is diverse and multi-faceted in nature. 


Emphasising the polyvalent nature of Cavafy’s poetics is the fact that we need to consider that the narrator, in establishing the Pontians as kin by labelling them «Γραικοί,» is in fact employing a term that the Pontians themselves never used to describe themselves. Considering that the narrator is reading folksongs, he would have encountered the relevant ethnonyms in use among the Pontians. 


Thus in another Pontian dirge for the Fall of the City, we read: 

«Την Πόλην όντας όριζεν ο Έλλεν Κωνσταντίνον 

είχεν πορτάρους δίκλωπους, αφέντες φοβετσιάρους, 

εκείνος είχεν σύνοδον Ρωμαίους δωδεκάραν.» 


So why is the narrator avoiding use of terms such as «Έλλεν» and «Ρωμαίοι» which appear to go to the heart of the Pontian identity? Is it that in his well-intentioned attempt to incorporate these outliers of Hellenism into the national fold, he is in fact engaging in an act of cultural imperialism, effacing their own understanding of their identity and imposing upon them another, mirroring the centralist nationalistic practices of the Modern Greek discourse? 


In this regard it is noteworthy that the narrator, even as he asserts the proximity of the Pontian tongue, evidently feels the need to appoint himself mediator and manifestly revels in its exotic nature, interpolating his own commentary within the quotations from the original text, in order to make it more intelligible to a “mainstream” audience. 


Here, Cavafy once more magnifies the tension between the spoken and written word. Whereas in the “mainstream” version of the dirge quoted in the poem, the priests are forbidden from reading words by a spoken word, in the quoted Pontian version, it is a bird who brings written confirmation of the Fall of the City and the literate prelates are rendered illiterate at the prospect of reading their doom and the narrator speculates, cannot, or refuse to do so. Instead it is left to Yiannika, the widow’s son and thus the lowest in the social pecking order to read the terrible news. He does so and is rendered a sobbing, heart-striking, mournful mess. 



Poet George Seferis wrote that Cavafy's world exists in the twilight zones, in the borderlands of those places, individuals and epochs which he so painstakingly identifies. It is an area marked by blending, amalgamation, transition, alteration, exceptions; the cities that glow and flicker; a hermaphroditic world where even the language spoken is an alloy. At the time the poem was written, in 1921, the Greek army was deep in Asia Minor and all indications were that the long awaited realisation of the “Megali Idea,” the unification of all of the historic Greek lands, was within grasp. Mainstream Greeks were thus compelled to confront the liminal and the marginal within the limited constructs of their own identity, in a similar way that Peloponnesians were compelled so to do after the liberation of their homeland, when they had to distinguish between “autochthonous” and “heterochthonous” Greeks and attempted to deny the latter basic rights. Cavafy’s poem is  thus a testament to the difficulties and inherent contradictions in such approaches. 


Furthermore, Cavafy’s understanding of contemporary events is eerily prescient. The verses within the poem:  

“and the sorrow of those distant Greeks 

who possibly still continued to believed they will be saved,” need to be read in conjunction with the final verse, quoting from the Pontian dirge: “Woe is us, Alas to us, Romania is taken.” Reserved right at the end of the poem is the term Pontians used to define their lands. They were part of Romania, that is, the Roman Empire, of which the Empire of Constantinople and then that of Trapezounta was a successor. The inherent irony within this assertion of identity, in juxtaposition with the mainland “Greekness” imposed by the narrator, is that just as the Pontians of Trapezounta lamented the Fall of Constantinople, hoping against hope that they would be spared, only to by conquered by the Ottomans some eight years later, so too will they most likely not be spared the outcome of the Greco-Turkish War. 


Viewed in this context, the final verse of the poem, is as tragic as it is sibylline. It foresees the end of Romania, the dream of the Megali Idea and of a people whose survival depends on its realisation. Rather, those people will be subjected to genocide, and the survivors will be forced to abandon those liminal, exotic locations of Hellenism that Cavafy so revels in, confining themselves instead, geographically and culturally to a centripetal mainland with little understanding or appreciation of their distinctiveness or of their existence as an alternative form of Hellenism, forever on the periphery. 


Cavafy could not have predicted, although he would not have been surprised, the emergence of vibrant Pontian communities in Australia. Like their forebears in Cavafy’s poem, they too often occupy the fringes of the Greek-Australian narrative and, within a paradigm of multiculturalism that marginalises and favours assimilation, they hope against hope that their Romania, the reconstruction of their culture and memories, will also not be ‘taken’. For them, Cavafy’s Πάρθεν, then, is as relevant as ever. 



First published in NKEE on Saturday  26 June 2021