At an angle to the universe

I have stolen the title of this blog post from Paul Bailey, who used it in his wonderful review of a new edition of Cavafy’s complete poems in last Saturday’s Guardian. (You can read the review here.) It is, in turn, a quote from EM Forster, who knew Cavafy in Alexandria during World War I and apparently said of him that he stood “absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”. And that metaphor seems absolutely perfect, for Cavafy in particular as well as for some other writers and artists: Rothko for instance, and perhaps Seamus Heaney. (Trying to think of creative artists to whom it applies reminds me of Alex Danchev’s wonderfully telling way of dividing visual artists between those whose paintings are saying, Look at this! and those whose paintings are saying, Look at me!)

But back to Paul Bailey’s review. I particularly like learning new things about Cavafy, for whom I have a deep and extravagant admiration, and Paul Bailey has given me the pleasure of another image; that of Cavafy setting down a few lines of a new poem on a sheet of paper and putting that in an envelope for later inspection, revision and expansion. It seems that he stored a mass of such envelopes in his apartment, and only opened them again “when he felt capable of bringing the half-poems they contained to a satisfactory end.” So contained, so controlled, so precisely laboured, those apparently spontaneous creations. I love to imagine that lonely and particular process.

The new book that Paul Bailey reviews is C.V. Cavafy: The Complete Poems, translated by the present keeper of the Cavafy flame, Daniel Mendelsohn. (I have his earlier compilation of the Collected Poems.) Bailey’s review commends the detail and scope of his scholarship but also points out some interesting infelicities in his translations, and contrasts one example with a translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. That makes me feel relaxed about my own (far less scholarly and knowledgeable) reservations that relate to several poems within the earlier Mendelsohn collection. The thing is, I’ve loved Cavafy’s poetry, and especially “Ithaka”, since I first read a translation of that in a Penguin book called Four Greek Poets, published in 1966. Much later I discovered that those translations were by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, and later still I encountered Daniel Mendelsohn’s version and have never been able to like it as much as the original (well, what I think of as the original) translation.

See what you think. I’ve posted ”Ithaka” before and I will probably find good reasons to post it again several times before it’s read – as I hope it will be – at my funeral.

So here is the Daniel Mendelsohn version:-

ITHACA by C.V. Cavafy
translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.

Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.

Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.

Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.

And here is my preferred version:

ITHAKA by C.P. Cavafy
translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.

Ask that your way be long.
At many a summer dawn to enter
-with what gratitude, what joy -
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise, mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.

Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you the splendid journey,
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

12 Responses to “At an angle to the universe”

  1. Mary Tapissier Says:

    Mmmm – lovely to read this on a starry evening. THANK you for reminding me

  2. barbara goldberg Says:

    No contest. Ithaka (vs. Ithaca) by a longshot: instruction vs. understanding, soul raise them up vs. soul sets them up, etc. etc. Not to mention the music (or lack thereof). I’m fascinated by such comparisons. There are at least 12 English translations of Celan’s Todesfuge (I prefer Christopher Middleton’s) and there are choices made by some of the translators that for the life of me remain unfathomable. Here’s Celan reading it himself – you can hear in the rhythms the sound of a train.

  3. admin Says:

    Thanks very much for this, Barbara. I might have guessed there would be other fascinating translation comparisons!

  4. admin Says:

    Very glad to do that, Mary!

  5. Pat Buoncristiani Says:

    I agree Belinda. And ‘gotten’??????????? Shudder.

  6. admin Says:

    Yes indeed! Thanks, Pat.

  7. Michelle Elvy Says:

    Yes I agree with the above – that ‘gotten’ is awkward. But I prefer the specificity of the anchor reference, even if ‘reach’ is more elegant.

    Interesting discussion and poems here.

  8. admin Says:

    I’d guess that “gotten” may sound felicitous to north American ears – but oddly, I don’t prefer the specificity of the anchor reference, although for all I know it’s a more accurate translation of the original. Thanks for your comment, Michelle.

  9. Eric Gates Says:

    The Mendelsohn translation reproduced here is incorrect.

  10. admin Says:

    I’m surprised to hear that the Mendelsohn translation’s incorrect: I reproduced it directly from Paul Bailey’s review. Can you tell me what the mistake is, so I can put it right?

  11. Eric Gates Says:

    Here are the corrections.
    I am using C.P.Cavafy collected poems translated and with an introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn. Alfred A. Knopf. New York. 2010. Third Printing. Pp13-14.
    I have given line numbers to help identify the differences.

    1.’Discoveries’ not understanding.
    6. ‘you won’t find such things on your way’
    7. ‘as long as your thoughts remain lofty’
    10. ‘you won’t ‘
    11. ‘stow them away inside’
    18. ‘finest wares’
    22. ‘Many Egyptian cities may you visit’
    23. ‘that’
    24. ‘Always in your mind keep Ithaca’
    25. ”To arrive there’
    26. ‘But do not hurry your trip in any way’.
    32. ‘you wouldn’t have’
    33. ‘But now she has nothing left to give you.’
    34. ‘didn’t’
    35. ‘you will’
    36. ‘You will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.’

    I hope I have completed these correctly and apologise if I have inadvertently introduced any mistakes. I do have a transcript of the poem if that would help, not sure if that breaches copyrights.

  12. admin Says:

    That’s both generous and kind of you – I’m very grateful.

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