Christian Reception in the Poetry of Cavafy

By Chrysothemis Hadjipanagi

Either self-referential or implicit testimonies of Cavafy’s biographers on his stance vis-à-vis matters of faith and other manifestations of religious life, at times interpreted through the prism of occasional or fragmentary or even obsessive criteria, contain the element of an external superficial semiology. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that intratextual signifieds be probed in the context of an unprejudiced review of at least some pertinent poems from both his early and mature poetic output.

Firstly, in his poem “In church”, there is from the first verse an explicit confession not of faith to God but a blissful expression of love for the church, the house of his faithful, by synecdoche the liturgical area for the gathering of the Graeci, arranged according to the internal ceremonial decoration of Byzantine church building. The first-person form of the verb, “I love the church” can in no way render the poet a cold observer as falsely inferred by some. There is no resemblance, in this regard, between him and that volatile, feisty student of Ammonios Sakkas, the Christian-bred Alexandrian Neoplatonist for whom the church is nothing but a parodic curiosity of his calculating hypocrisy, according to another Cavafian poem1. 

After the cautionary three-verse stanza, the introductory verse of the second stanza categorically declares: “Whenever I go there, into the church of the Greeks”, the effect of his entry and of his nostalgic ecclesiastical methexis being emphasized in the poem’s last two verses: “my thoughts turn to the great glories of our race/to the splendour of our glorious Byzantine heritage”. And this glory is, obviously, not to be understood without the glorifying invocation of the sacred and the holy of Greeklike and Christianlike Orthodoxy, as set out in the five intermediate verses: the aromatic incense, the polyphonic chanting and the priests with the Byzantine magnificence of their schema, emblematic adornment of their gold-threaded vestments. For obvious historic reasons, Cavafy differentiates both verbally and conceptually the Greek nationals from the Greek Orthodox Graeci as the latter, a bridge linking the Ancient Greek world to the Byzantine one, attest the ontological continuity and, at critical junctures of tribulation, the national awakening of Hellenism through its racial origin and Orthodoxy, as brought out by the Greek homelands of the East.

But let us see who his own saints are, those with whom he chooses to converse poetically in the poems of the Canon as well as in his unpublished and unfinished poems, revealing aspects of their sacred martyrdom and their remarkable devout existence. Again, without Cavafy theologizing or hymning with Synaxarian tones and ecclesiastical heirmoi, we capture one of the impulses of [his] poetry, where the boundaries of [his] art were laid down2: delving into the pages of ecclesiastical history, of sacred tradition and paternal teachings, he poetically recasts the most captivating moments of the life of some of the saints and ascetic hosiomartyrs of our Christian calendar. Let us begin with his unpublished poem “Simeon”3, composed in July 1917. These are two characteristic stanzas: “I slipped in among the Christians/praying and worshipping in silence/ there revering him. Not being a Christian myself/ I couldn’t share their spiritual peace – / I trembled all over and suffered;/ I shuttered, disturbed, terribly moved./ Please don’t smile; for thirty-five years – think of it – / winter and summer, night and day, for thirty-five years/ he’s been living and suffering on top of a pillar./ Before either of us was born (I’m twenty-nine, you must be younger than I am),/ before we were born, just imagine it./ Simeon climbed up his pillar/ and has stayed there ever since facing God.

Cavafy had early manifested an interest in the lives of the Saints, as demonstrated by his extensive comment on Gibbon4: “This great, this wonderful saint is surely an object to be singled out in ecclesiastical history for admiration and study. He has been, perhaps, the only man who has dared to be really alone. […] People came from the farthest West and from the farthest East, from Britain and from India, to gaze on the unique sight ― on this candle of faith (such is the magnificent language of the historian Theodoret)5, set up and lit on a lofty chandelier”6. Both the aforementioned poetic excerpt as well as the enlightening Cavafian comment demonstrate a kind of unsaid secret attraction and delirious praising admiration for this great martyr of Christian faith who through his idiorrhythmic ascetic life that transcended human limits had achieved a perpendicular departure from this world. Simeon lives and suffers and because he climbed up the pillar he remains eternally elevated in the eyes of God. The connotations as regards the divinization of the Christian martyr and the immortality of his existence through the centuries are indeed eloquent, just as the miraculous transition from unfaithfulness to faith with the categorical imperative form of the invoking verbs think and imagine.

Another martyr, perhaps unknown to many, emerging in the proscenium of the Cavafian poetic scene-setting is “the triumphant and holy martyr Vavylas,/ wonder and glory of our church” from Cavafy’s last completed poem “On the outskirts of Antioch”7. The poem was written between November 1932 and April 1933 on the conflict between Julian the Apostate and the Christians. Responding to those who have occasionally misinterpreted the poem by attributing to the poet the ulterior motives of a parodic irony against Christians and their martyrs, supposedly in defence of the Transgressor and the ancient pagan world, are erudite scholars but also the poem itself in its entirety8. According to Seferis, “the puritan Julian [is] the most mocked character of his work”9, as demonstrated by the twelve poems, including the five unfinished ones, where he is the protagonist. Furthermore, he is strongly criticized by Gregory of Nazianzus the Theologian for whom Cavafy had the utmost respect, more than for any other Byzantine poet10.

This masterful poem of mature Cavafian creation, made with the tools of a performative dramatic conception and plot, unfurls before us a historic event from 362 AD, as recounted by the historian Socrates of the 4th c. AD: The unholy Julian, carrying the syndromes of shameless arrogance of authority and antichristian wrath, orders that the relic of St Vavylas11 be unburied from the forest of Daphne and transferred elsewhere, as Apollo the false god refuses to speak prophetically. Not only was the temple purified, as the Christians of Antioch “took the holy relic and carried it elsewhere/ in love and in honour”, but “in no time at all a colossal fire/ broke out, a terrible fire/ and both the temple and Apollo burned to nothing”. Of course, Julian had incriminated the Christians, but the poet, who may not question the motivation behind such a probable act, albeit committed by Christians, employs the poem’s closing verse to allude  to the end of the last idolater emperor and the predominance of Christianity: “The essential thing is – he exploded”, which also constitutes the inevitable outcome of the parenthetic verse in the fourth stanza, so telling of this inescapable historic development under the power of the truth of Christianity, as proven by the untamed faith of its martyrs: (“the false gods are terrified of our martyrs”). After all, who could reverse the flow of History? Julian is a tragi-comic ridiculous figure in a world that can no longer tolerate his obsolete religious system nor “his nonsense about false gods”12.

Real and imaginary Cavafian personae are literally and metaphorically apparelled in the faith in Christ and to this they look forward as they repent for the serenity of their soul – the poems “Manuel Comnenus”, “Tomb of Ignatios” and “In the month of Athyr” being especially indicative of this. In the first, the emperor kyr Manuel Comnenus does not merely wish but in fact commands imperatively and irrevocably to… “get him from the cells,/ecclesiastical habiliments”, and ridding himself of the vain royal toga “…puts them on rejoicing to present/ the modest aspect of a priest or monk”. Frugal in the use of adjectives, Cavafy makes sure to point out the modesty of the appearance, both external and internal, judging from the closing three-verse stanza and the final repetitive adverb where the apparelled is also signified as attired and atoned through the sanctifying Christian faith: “Happy are all they that reverently believe/ and, like the emperor kyr Manuel end/ apparelled in their faith decorously”. In the second poem, Kleon of affluence and pompous opulence is transformed into Ignatios lector, namely a half-cleric according to Lechonitis, who in his epitaph appears to confess whilst urging for the gains of an albeit belated transition from antichristian greed and attachment to blinding worldly goods to faith in Christ: “I’m Ignatios, lector, who came to his senses very late;/ but even so in that way I lived ten happy months/ in the peace, the security of Christ”. In the half-deleted and mutilated funerary epigram, dedicated to another imaginary person, Lefkios, Cavafy as an “inscriber of tombstones” presents his departed Alexandrian poetic hero as having placed his Soul – where the capital S is not arbitrary – onto the same security of divine bliss. The “Lord Jesus Christ” of the corroded epigram, which leaves the divine name intact, connotes both a glorifying invocation and a supplicating prayer for the soul of the departed, who has not died but went to sleep, according to the perception of death in the Christian Church as sleep and post-mortem rise in eternal life.

Albeit broad, these indicative thoughts noted above allow us, I believe, to probe the width and depth of the great Alexandrian Poet’s reception apropos of the ecclesiastical conscience, of the Christian faith and the practical application of its humanitarian paradigm.

Translated by Despina Pirketti

Translator’s Note: The English translation of Cavafy’s poems cited here are by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard.

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1. See the third stanza of the poem “From the school of the renowned philosopher”. Cavafy, Ποιήματα (1919-1933) Β, editing by G.P. Savvides, Ikaros 1963, pp. 28-29.

2. See the poem “Understanding”, C. P. Cavafy Ποιήματα (1896-1918) Α, editing by G.P. Savvides, Ikaros 1963, p. 64.

3. See C.P. Cavafy, Αδημοσίευτα Ποιήματα (1822-923), editing by G.P. Savvides, Ikaros, Athens, 1968, pp. 175-177.

4. See D. Haas, Cavafy’s Reading Notes on Gibbon’s “Decline and Fall”, Folia Neohellenica, 1982, pp. 66-67.

5. For the ascetic struggles of hosios Simeon Stylites, that “celestial bodiless man” and “angel incarnate on earth” according to the idiomelon sticheron from the Vespers of September 1st, we learn not only from posterior and Synaxarian sources, but also from reliable texts and ear and eye witnesses: his disciple, monk Antonios, who wrote his Vita shortly after his death, and Bishop Theodoritos of Kyros who, before his dormition, had dedicated a special chapter to him in his Philotheos Historia. This work provides the par excellence source for the Syrian monks of the 4th and 5th century from where, as is well known, Cavafy compiled information to compose his poem. For the life, monastic regime and supra-natural asceticism of Simeon Stylites, see the essay by I.M. Fountoulis in the review Ο Ποιμήν of the Holy Bishopric of Mytiline, vol. ΝΖ΄ (1992), pp. 223 -227.

6. As opposed to the snuffed-out “Candles” of the homonymous Cavafian poem, See C.P. Cavafy, Ποιήματα (1896-1918) Α. Op. cit., p. 97.

7. See C.P. Cavafy, Ποιήματα (1919-1933) Β. Op. cit., pp. 93 – 94.

8. See Yiorgos Seferis, Δοκιμές, first volume, Ikaros 1974, p. 343: “In the seventy years of his life he did nothing else but transplant himself, drop by drop, to his one hundred and fifty four poems…”

9. Ibid. p. 359.

10. See the treatise “The Byzantine poets” in Cavafy, Πεζά, presentation and comments by G.A. Papoutsaki, published by G. Fexi, Athens 1963, pp. 43-50.

11. Vavylas, Bishop of Antioch and martyr of the 3rd c. AD, whose memory is observed by the Church on 4 September, had lived during the reign of emperor Numerian.

12. See the poem “Julian and the Antiochians” in C.P. Cavafy, Ποιήματα (1919-1933) B. Op. cit., p. 55.

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