On this wine-bowl—beaten from the purest silver,
made for Herakleides’ white-walled home
where everything declares his perfect taste—
I’ve placed a flowering olive and a river,
and at its heart, a beautiful young man
who will let the water cool his naked foot
forever. O memory: I prayed to you
that I might make his face just as it was.
What a labour that has turned out to be.
He fell in Lydia fifteen years ago.
[Translated by Don Paterson]
For those unfamiliar with him, C. P. Cavafy (born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis) was a Greek poet who lived from 1863 to 1933. Despite spending most of his life in Egypt, Cavafy was fascinated by his family’s homeland and his poems are filled with influences from Greek history, mythology, and culture. This particular poem describes an imagined scene from ancient Greece of a silversmith hard at work on a new krater, a type of vessel for mixing wine with water.
It’s important to understand how personal this piece of work is for the silversmith. Herakleides may have requested a scene of a young man sitting next to a river, but it seems unlikely that he would ask for a portrait of the smith’s friend specifically. After all, Herakleides is upper class and this silversmith is just a hired craftsman. They travel in different circles, which means that he likely never even met the young man. In that case, it was the silversmith himself who decided to put the man’s portrait on the bowl.
So, if the task is simply to carve a picture of young man, why did he choose to carve this young man? Obviously, a person likes to keep pictures of the people they love, just to remember them by. But I think there is another reason why he might have decided to do this, one that has to do with the deeper ideas underlying this poem.
One theme that seems to occur often in literature, and especially in poetry, is the idea that art negates death. We see it in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 55, where he promises to make his mistress immortal through his poetry, and in Donne’s “The Canonization,” in which the speaker looks forward to the glory and honor that he and his lady will amass for themselves after death thanks to this poem. Going further back to ancient Greece itself, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is often interpreted as the story of the artist’s attempt to achieve immortality through art. I think our craftsman was attempting a similar thing with his bowl. Somewhere in him, there was the hope (however vague it might have been) that, if he could capture the man’s likeness in silver, it would be like capturing a bit of him. Whether anyone remembered the man or not, whether anyone knew his name, this bowl would go on preserving some semblance of him, even after the craftsman and everyone else who knew him was dead.
But the smith can’t do it. His memory is faulty. Like Orpheus on his journey to the Underworld, it’s not the art itself that fails per se, but the person practicing it.
So there is a sort of moral here: don’t make art a god. Though it can help to guard things and people from oblivion, it will never be perfect until the people creating it are. It’s an idea that I think I personally need to be reminded of from time to time, given the fact that so much of my life revolves around writing and poetry. At the same time, this poem speaks to me on a purely emotional level, oddly enough because of its unemotional exterior.
Whether this is the result of my reading him in translation or not, I’ve always gotten the feeling from Cavafy that he can be very dry (in the best sense) and matter-of-fact. There’s a real anguish that’s being communicated here, but not in the torrents of language you might find in, for instance, Tennyson’s In Memoriam A.H.H., nor even in the cavalcade of images and metaphors one finds in a piece like Auden’s “Stop all the clocks.” Cavafy’s language is terse. It’s minimal. Until the craftsman addresses “memory” to complain about his unanswered prayer, the poem consists almost entirely of a recitation of facts, a description of outward realities. This affects the experience of reading the poem, but it also affects the way we read the speaker.
Because the grief, and the reaction to the grief, is described here in such brief and vague terms, it frees the reader to bring her own emotions and experiences to the poem. The speaker tells us very little about the deceased and even less about himself. As for the speaker’s own feelings, they are suggested but never overtly described. By leaving the details of the speaker’s emotional state unsaid, Cavafy allows his readers to put some of their own experience into the piece. He makes the poem personal for everyone who reads it.
Of course, this craftsman is not a completely blank slate onto whom the reader can project anything she wants. There are a few clues to who he is and what he’s feeling, and the sparseness of the language is one of them. When I read this poem, short and to-the-point as it is, I get the impression of a speaker who is entirely done. He is worn with grief and has no desire to continue explaining himself to others, as if they deserved an explanation. He avoids talking about anything interior to him, as the focus on outward objects and realities suggests.
And really, that avoidance of interiority gets to the heart of what this poem is about: this speaker looks to external reality as a sort of refuge, both from grief and from forgetting. At the same time that this poem points to the limits of poetry, I think of it as a sort of ars poetica too, explaining why poets—and artists in general—are motivated to make art. And in this case, they make art to honor the things and people they love. To preserve memories and to give those things a physical presence outside of the artist. In a way, he’s trying to do what I try to do every time I sit down to write one of these essays: he wants to externalize his love, give it a shape and a form in the real world so that it no longer exists only in his own head.
So while Cavafy critiques the creative impulse, this poem is not anti-art. True, art will never live up to our ideal for it, but it will stand—for a time—as a testament to what we loved and what was important to us. It might make that thing or person important to others too, if they find that the work satisfies something in them as well.