22+ Best Constantine P. Cavafy Poems You Should Read

Constantine Peter Cavafy was an Egyptiot Greek poet, journalist and civil servant. His consciously individual style earned him a place among the most important figures not only in Greek poetry, but in Western poetry as well.

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Famuos Constantine P. Cavafy Poems

Unfaithfulness

So although we approve of many things in
Homer, this we will not approve of…. nor will
we approve of Aeschylus when he makes Thetis say
that Apollo sang at her wedding in celebration of
her child:
‘that he would not know sickness, would live long,
and that every blessing would be his;
and he sang such praises that he rejoiced my heart.
And I had hopes that the divine lips of Apollo,
fluent with the art of prophecy, would not prove false.
But he who proclaimed these things….
he it is
who killed my son.. .’
Plato, Republic, II. 383
When Thetis and Peleus got married
Apollo stood up at the sumptuous wedding feast
and blessed the bridal pair
for the son who would come from their union.
‘Sickness will never visit him,’ he said,
‘and his life will be a long one.’
This pleased Thetis immensely:
the words of Apollo, expert in prophecies,
seemed a guarantee of security for her child.
And when Achilles grew up
and all Thessaly said how beautiful he was,
Thetis remembered the god’s words.
But one day some elders came in with the news
that Achilles had been killed at Troy.
Thetis tore her purple robes,
pulled off rings, bracelets,
flung them to the ground.
And in her grief, remembering that wedding scene,
she asked what the wise Apollo was up to,
where was this poet who spouts
so eloquently at banquets, where was this prophet
when they killed her son in his prime?
And the elders answered that Apollo himself
had gone down to Troy
and with the Trojans had killed her son.

Thermopylae

Honour to those who in the life they lead
define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right,
consistent and just in all they do,
but showing pity also, and compassion;
generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor,
still generous in small ways,
still helping as much as they can;
always speaking the truth,
yet without hating those who lie.
And even more honour is due to them
when they foresee (as many do foresee)
that Ephialtis will turn up in the end,
that the Medes will break through after all.

The Windows

In these dark rooms where I live out empty days,
I wander round and round
trying to find the windows.
It will be a great relief when a window opens.
But the windows aren’t there to be found –
or at least I can’t find them. And perhaps
it’s better if I don’t find them.
Perhaps the light will prove another tyranny.
Who knows what new things it will expose?

Interruption

Hasty and inexperienced creatures of the moment,
it’s we who interrupt the action of the gods.
In the palaces of Eleusis and Phthia,
Demeter and Thetis initiate good works
over high flames and heavy smoke.
But Metaneira always bursts in
from the royal quarters, hair loose, terrified,
and Peleus always gets scared and intervenes.

Che fece…Il gran rifiuto.

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 from honour to honour, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he would still say no. Yet that no – the right no –
drags him down all his life.

The First Step

The young poet Evmenis
complained one day to Theocritos:
‘I’ve been writing for two years now
and I’ve composed only one idyll.
It’s my single completed work.
I see, sadly, that the ladder
of Poetry is tall, extremely tall;
and from this first step I’m standing on now
I’ll never climb any higher.’
Theocritos retorted: ‘Words like that
are improper, blasphemous.
Just to be on the first step
should make you happy and proud.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
Even this first step
is a long way above the ordinary world.
To stand on this step
you must be in your own right
a member of the city of ideas.
And it’s a hard, unusual thing
to be enrolled as a citizen of that city.
Its councils are full of Legislators
no charlatan can fool.
To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.’

Candles

Days to come stand in front of us,
like a row of burning candles –
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
Days past fall behind us,
a gloomy line of burnt-out candles;
the nearest are still smoking,
cold, melted, and bent.
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my burning candles.
I don’t want to turn, don’t want to see, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly one more dead candle joins another.

The Funeral of Sarpedon

Zeus mourns deeply:
Patroklos has killed Sarpedon.
Now Patroklos and the Achaians rush on
to snatch up the body, to dishonour it.
But Zeus doesn’t tolerate that at all.
Though he let his favourite child be killed-
this the Law required-
he’ll at least honour him after death.
So he now sends Apollo down to the plain
with instructions about how the body should be tended.
Apollo reverently raises the hero’s body
and carries it in sorrow to the river.
He washes the dust and blood away,
heals the terrible wounds so there’s no trace left,
pours perfume of ambrosia over it,
and dresses it in radiant Olympian robes.
He bleaches the skin, and with a pearl comb
combs out the jet black hair.
He spreads and arranges the beautiful limbs.
Now he looks like a young king, a royal charioteer-
twenty-five or twenty-six years old-
resting himself after winning
the prize in a famous race,
his chariot all gold and his horses the fastest.
Having finished his task this way,
Apollo calls for the two brothers,
Sleep and Death, and orders them
to take the body to Lykia, the rich country.
So the two brothers, Sleep and Death,
set off on foot toward the rich country, Lykia;
and when they reached the door
of the king’s palace,
they handed over the honoured body
and then returned to their other concerns.
And once the body was received in the palace
the sad burial began, with processions and honours and dirges,
with many libations from sacred vessels,
with all pomp and circumstance.
Then skilled workers from the city
and celebrated craftsmen in stone
came to make the tombstone and the tomb.

Prayer

A sailor drowned in the sea’s depths.-
Unaware, his mother goes and lights

a tall candle before the ikon of our Lady
praying that he’ll come back quickly, that the weather may be good –

her ear cocked always to the wind.
While she prays and supplicates,

the ikon listens, solemn, sad,
knowing the son she waits for never will come back.

The Horses of Achilles

When they saw Patroklos dead
-so brave and strong, so young-
the horses of Achilles began to weep;
their immortal natures were outraged
by this work of death they had to look at.
They reared their heads, tossed their manes,
beat the ground with their hooves,
and mourned Patroklos, seeing him lifeless, destroyed,
now mere flesh only, his spirit gone,
defenceless, without breath,
turned back from life to the great Nothingness.

Zeus saw the tears of those immortal horses and felt sorry.
‘I shouldn’t have acted so thoughtlessly
at the wedding of Peleus,’ he said.
‘Better if we hadn’t given you as a gift,
my unhappy horses. What business did you have down there,
among pathetic human beings, the toys of fate?
You’re free of death, you won’t get old,
yet ephemeral disasters torment you.
Men have caught you in their misery.’
But it was for the eternal disaster of death
that those two gallant horses shed their tears.

An Old Man

At the noisy end of the café, head bent
over the table, an old man sits alone,
a newspaper in front of him.
And in the miserable banality of old age
he thinks how little he enjoyed the years
when he had strentgh, and wit, and looks.
He knows he’s very old now: sees it, feels it.
Yet it seems he was young just yesterday.
The time’s gone by so quickly, gone by so quickly.
And he thinks how Discretion fooled him,
how he always believed, so stupidly
that cheat who said: ‘Tomorrow. You have plenty of time.’
He remembers impulses bridled, the joy
he sacrificed. Every chance he lost
now mocks his brainless prudence.
But so much thinking, so much remembering
makes the old man dizzy. He falls asleep,
his head resting on the café table.

In the Same Space

TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY
The setting of houses, cafés, the neighborhood
that I’ve seen and walked through years on end:

I created you while I was happy, while I was sad,
with so many incidents, so many details.

And, for me, the whole of you has been transformed into feeling.

Craftsman of Wine Bowls

On this wine bowl of pure silver—
destined for the home of Heracleides,
where discerning taste and elegance reside—
I’ve engraved flowers, streams and thyme,
and in their midst a handsome youth,
naked and erotic, dangling his leg
in the water still. I prayed, memory,
that I’d find in you an ally strong enough to render
the face of this youth, whom I loved, just as it once was.
It will not be easy, as it has been
some fifteen years from the day he fell,
a soldier, in the battle of Magnesia.

The Next Table

He can’t be more than twenty-two.
And yet I’m certain it was at least that many years ago
that I enjoyed the very same body.

This isn’t some erotic fantasy.
I’ve only just come into the casino
and there hasn’t been time enough to drink.
I tell you, that’s the very same body I once enjoyed.

And if I can’t recall precisely where—that means nothing.

Now that he’s sitting there at the next table,
I recognize each of his movements—and beneath his clothes
I see those beloved, naked limbs again.

Caesarion

In part to verify a date,
and in part just to pass the time,
last night I picked up a volume
of Ptolemaic inscriptions and began reading.
Those endless poems of praise and flattery
all sound the same. All the men are brilliant,
great and good, mighty benefactors;
most wise in all their undertakings.
The same for the women of the dynasty, all the Berenices
and Cleopatras, wonderful, each and every one.

When I managed to find the date in question,
I’d have put the book aside had a brief mention
of King Caesarion, an insignificant note really,
not suddenly caught my eye…

Ah, there you stood, with that vague
charm of yours. And since history has devoted
just a few lines to you, I had more freedom
to fashion you in my mind’s eye…
I made you handsome, capable of deep feeling.
My art gave your face an appealing,
dreamlike beauty. In fact, I imagined you
so vividly last night, that when my lamp
went out—I let it go out on purpose—
I actually thought you had come into my room;
you were there, standing before me,
just as you would have looked in defeated Alexandria,
pale and tired, ideal in your sorrow,
still hoping for mercy from those vicious men
who kept on whispering ‘too many Caesars.’

Since Nine O’Clock

Half past twelve. The time has quickly passed
since nine o’clock when I first turned up the lamp
and sat down here. I’ve been sitting without reading,
without speaking. With whom should I speak,
so utterly alone within this house?
The apparition of my youthful body,
since nine o’clock when I first turned up the lamp,
has come and found me and reminded me
of shuttered perfumed rooms
and of pleasure spent—what wanton pleasure!
And it also brought before my eyes
streets made unrecognizable by time,
bustling city centres that are no more
and theatres and cafés that existed long ago.
The apparition of my youthful body
came and also brought me cause for pain:
deaths in the family; separations;
the feelings of my loved ones, the feelings of
those long dead which I so little valued.
Half past twelve. How the time has passed.
Half past twelve. How the years have passed.

Che Fece . . . Il Gran Rifiuto

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 from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
drags him down all his life.

The God Abandons Antony

At midnight, when suddenly 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 full of courage,
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who 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 full of 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 pleasure—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
to say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Waiting for the Barbarians

TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What’s the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
He’s even got a scroll to give him,
loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

Because the barbarians are coming today
and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

The City

TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Che Fece … Il Gran Refiuto

TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY
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 from honor to honor, strong in his conviction.
He who refuses does not repent. Asked again,
he’d still say no. Yet that no—the right no—
drags him down all his life.

The Afternoon Sun

TRANSLATED BY EDMUND KEELEY
This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, businessmen, companies.

This room, how familiar it is.

The couch was here, near the door,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window the bed
where we made love so many times.

They must still be around somewhere, those old things.

Beside the window the bed;
the afternoon sun used to touch half of it.

. . . One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only. . . And then—
that week became forever.

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