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Saturday, 7 July 2012

Constantine P. Cavafy: Che fece ... il gran rifiuto (The Great Refusal)

File:Inferno Canto 3 line 9.jpg

Dante reads the words "All hope abandon, ye who enter here" above the entrance to the Inferno: Inferno, Canto III, l.9, illustrated by Gustave Doré, 1861-1865

For some people the day comes
when they have to declare the great Yes
or the great No. It’s clear at once who has the Yes
ready within him; and saying it,

he goes forward in honour and self-assurance.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no -- the right no --
undermines him all his life.

Constantine P. Cavafy: Che fece ... il gran rifiuto, first published 1901; translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard in C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, revised edition, 1992

che fece ... il gran rifiuto: cf.

Poscia ch’io v’ebbi alcun riconosciuto,

vidi e conobbi l’ombra di colui

che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto.

(After I had recognized some among them,
I saw and knew the shade of him
who from cowardice made the great refusal.)

-- Dante, Inferno III, ll.58-60

Cavafy's title alludes to the renunciation of the papacy by Celestine V, who, five months after becoming pope in 1294, abdicated and retired to the highest mountain in Abruzzi to live the life of a hermit.  This great "No" was adjudged an act of cowardice by Dante, who placed Celestine in Hell; and an act of honour by Cavafy, whose title redacts Dante's lines, editing back out again the moralistic reading-in of history.

Che gran rifiuto - Manuscript

Che fece ... il gran rifiuto: Cavafy's ms., dated July 1899

Che fece … il gran rifiuto 

Σε μερικούς ανθρώπους έρχεται μια μέρα
που πρέπει το μεγάλο Ναι ή το μεγάλο το Όχι
να πούνε. Φανερώνεται αμέσως όποιος τόχει
έτοιμο μέσα του το Ναι, και λέγοντάς το πέρα

πηγαίνει στην τιμή και στην πεποίθησί του.
Ο αρνηθείς δεν μετανοιώνει. Aν ρωτιούνταν πάλι,
όχι θα ξαναέλεγε. Κι όμως τον καταβάλλει
εκείνο τ’ όχι – το σωστό – εις όλην την ζωή του.

File:20100923 Kompsatos Bridge Polyanthos Rhodope Thrace Greece Panorama.jpg

17th-18th century bridge, Kompsatos river, Thrace, Greece
: photo by Ggia, 23 September  2010


Castrum Sancti angeli de Ravecanina, birthplace of Celestine V: photo by Mario Mancini, 11 May 2011

Illustration to the Divine Comedy (Inferno): Sandro Botticelli, 1480s, silverpoint on parchment, completed in pen and ink, coloured with tempera (Biblioteca Apostolica, Vatican)

This post for Vassilis


Jonathan Chant said...

Honour and self-assurance...

Something to always try and strive for.

TC said...

Che fece ... il gran rifiuto: read in Cavafy's house, by Yannis Tsarouchis

And see also:

Constantine P. Cavafy: The God Abandons Antony

Constantine P. Cavafy: Trojans

TC said...


Ah, if only.

Robb said...

“The quest is to be liberated from the negative, which is really our own will to nothingness. And once having said yes to the instant, the affirmation is contagious. It bursts into a chain of affirmations that knows no limit. To say yes to one instant is to say yes to all of existence.”

― Waking Life

larry white said...

Ah, yes. Saw Keeley read at the 92nd St. Y in the very early sixties.
Felt daunted by the Greeks, not confidently being among them. Patrick Leigh Fermor broke the freeze later with his beautiful accounts of travels to and around Greece from the early thirties on. I read these Keeley translations with renewed awe and some late-life comprehension.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

It is hard to say something besides your own name. Even then, words might fail. Sun or moon or stars or Shakespeare drowning out fear--the great heroes, the great words put one into the Great Ambiguity.
(o.k., yes, I just spent some days down in Ashland at the Shakespeare Festival and saw/heard some wonderful words--I guess I felt too rich and had to spend my cash and credit)

Wooden Boy said...

The decision you can't repent of is the great thing, and when such moments come to us, there's little sense of a choice. The world can look at it as courage or cowardice, honour or abjection, but for the poor subject concerned it's a feverish, dreadful movement.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

I would like to swim in that river in Thrace, the Kompsatos. It looks a bit like parts of the Umpqua or Rogue. The country, rugged, the water soft. Although there are bears here and lots of willows. The river smell enthralls, drugs.

Susan Kay Anderson said...

I'm glad the small jar of summer berries was well-received. The summer bell rings in the monastery tower all over the hillside. It is time to pray that I left enough for the bears, the Langoliers, the minnows, and the heart of winter. The trees bend in the heat when I say this. It is so impressive about Hundertwasser. Crushed and boiled with sugar.
It is a taste--you are welcome. I'm so glad you both enjoy.

TC said...

I'd never want to be pope and if appointed would stagger blindly toward the microwave towers, dodging the gnashing meatballs as I went.

The partner of the subject hath grievously hurt her foot and in consequence the brain damaged subject is aggrieved today and licks the berry juice off his paw distractedly thinking it would be so much better to be up upon the Rogue, letting a finger trail in the water to be nipped by minnows and listening to the song of a willowy Riverman.

Yes to the one instant, no to the next, then yes again, and no, as fall the petals of the daisy, the petals of the buttercup.

It is time to pray.

TC said...

Oh, how they come and go...

Anonymous said...

love those words!...have to read them again...and again...