The Art of Living

Without sentimentality, Cavafy studied human emotions. His poetry explores the art of living on the edge: the pursuit of illicit desires or submission to defeat. In either case, it suggests that the worst error is to allow oneself to be fooled. There is dignity in meeting one’s fate and playing one’s part to the end.

Wool and bast textile fragment with maenads
Egypt, late antique
Kelsey Museum 94288

The God Abandons Antony

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard