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Wednesday 9 May 2012

Constantine P. Cavafy: Trojans


Head of a Warrior ('The Red Head'): Leonardo da Vinci, red chalk on brownish paper, 226 x 186 mm, 1504-05 (Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest)

Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;
our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We just begin to get somewhere,
gain a little confidence,
grow almost bold and hopeful,
when something always comes up to stop us:
Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
and terrifies us with his violent shouting.
Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.
We think we’ll change our luck
by being resolute and daring,
so we move outside ready to fight.
But when the great crisis comes,
our boldness and resolution vanish;
our spirit falters, paralyzed,
and we scurry around the walls
trying to save ourselves by running away.
Yet we’re sure to fail. Up there,
high on the walls, the dirge has already begun.
They’re mourning the memory, the aura of our days.
Priam and Hecuba mourn for us bitterly.

Woman Lamenting by a Burning City: Jan Swart van Groningen, pen in black, brush in brown, 360 x 283 mm, 1550-55 (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)

Constantine P. Cavafy: Trojans (1905), from Collected Poems, edited by George Savidis, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, 1975


TC said...

That's of course Leonardo's intense Achilles in the top image and the unhappy woman wringing her hands as her city burns in the lower image is Hecuba, heroine of the preceding post.

(Oh no, content again! They're mourning the memory, the aura of our days!)

Hazen said...

Well, Tom, there’s content and then there’s content. The Cavafy poem strikes deep. In the van Gronigen drawing the woman’s hands seem to be wringing out grief. Her head turns away, ‘mourning the memory,’ the eyes hollow and mouth gone slack at the horror of witnessing the destruction of her home, and a life. Timeless. All too timeless.
Cavafy brings to mind Alexandria and Durrell and his quartet of stories about that city.

TC said...

Well, there's certainly nothing that could be called contentedness in the air here.

The feeling that a world has been lost, and that it is not recuperable, is palpable.

A familiar Cavafy theme.

The complex interplay between the historical and the personal, the myth and the reality, the characters and the story they are caught up in, yet never quite catching up with --

I guess all that is what I meant by content, Hazen.

Thanks, once again, for getting that.

The Hellenistic world, yes, Durrell's Alexandria, and Ungaretti's permanent longing for Alexandria as well.

These examples remain beacons in the night. Though perhaps no more than embers, now.

Chris said...

The van Gronigen also made me think of Lot's wife. How much does Cavafy's certainty of ruin have to do with our failure to be able to show even ten just men to the Lord? Ten is not a large number.



A beautiful marriage of word and image here,

"Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us
and terrifies us with his violent shouting."

(Leonardo's 'The Red Head' --stunning)

"Up there,
high on the walls, the dirge has already begun."

(Groningen's 'Woman Lamenting by a Burning City -- stunning)


light coming into fog against invisible
ridge, sparrow calling from pine branch
in foreground, wave sounding in channel

only in so far as is, right
side of last equation

of surface as well as lines,
given, as function of

grey white fog against invisible ridge,
circular green pine on tip of sandspit

TC said...


Sorry about that. Caught up in Genesis... but then aren't we all sometimes...

only in so far as is, right

Hazen said...

How many times in the course of this organized hysteria that we call civilization has some Hecuba mourned the loss of children, family, home . . . everything?

Chris said...

The wonder of Genesis is that Abraham succeeds in talking God down to ten. There is no similar argument in the narrative of the Atreide.

Perhaps an academic point to the residents of Sodom, though.

Benjamin's Angel of History, like Lot's wife, can't help looking backwards. And both of them see nothing but ruins and debris.

Nin Andrews said...

A beautiful post and yes, I do think these are more than embers. I think we keep thinking we will be different this time or next time or the time after that. A kind of strange psyche in our DNA that runs so deep. I love the artwork, esp. the woman mourning. Blessed are those who mourn . . .
But . . .
I know they won't be comforted.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Here's Cavafy on walls being built rather than coming down--timeless again, as always.

Anonymous said...

What a gorgeously bleak line: Our efforts are those of men prone to disaster;" -- oh my, how true. Laid prone by it, too, in the grave & out.

This thinking about Genesis must be going around.

TC said...

When Bert Brecht blew on these embers, the result was this.

TC said...

Vassilis, ah, those walls.

They seem to have gone up overnight.

The longest night...

TC said...


Genetics, scary; Genesis, scarier still.

"Then R. said: From this gluttonous hunger comes forth vengeance..."

gamefaced said...

odd. if there was one thing that genesis never struck up in me, was wonder. indignation maybe..

TC said...

Well, yes. A bit of sadness too perhaps. Along with the fear.

For instance, the reason why God heard Abraham's prayer, according to Genesis, was that Abraham got down in the mud and groveled. That kind of prayer could only appeal to a Big Bad Boss God, who only wants to hear prayers that come with an implicit "Let me be your bitch, Daddy". That seems... well, kind of weak, from just about any viewpoint.

I understand that every religion seems to need some kind of Ultimate Book to Apply to All Cases. But still. That's the trouble with all religions. Not much room in any of them for the open mind.

The "that's all she wrote" element in anybody's "final" version of the Book of Historical Knowledge, Rules & Regulations always hints of a need to establish a VERSION (semblance) of order, without the accompanying admission that this is merely SOMEBODY's version, codified for SOMEBODY's purposes.