The Greek poet Homer signifies the dawn of Western literature and his works include some of the most significant literary products of the human intellect. Homer is an enigmatic figure and there is still controversy about when and where he lived. The most common view is that he flourished in the 8th centry BC and that he composed the Iliad in 750 BC and the Odyssey in 725 BC. His epics describe events relating to the last year of the Trojan War, which is believed to have taken place approximately 400 years earlier than Homer. Much of the content of the Homeric epics appears to be consistent with the Aegean Late Bronze Age (12th centry BC) and in his works, Homer tried to reconstruct the remote past.
In both his poems, Homer narrates the stories of epic heroes (mainly Achilles and Odysseus), who live in a heroic age. The Iliad and the Odyssey engage with the megathemes of human life: wrath and war, journey and return. The world of Homer is in many ways our own world. In this world we are offered the unique opportunity to explore the definition of being human. The message of the Homeric epics about the change of the human condition from absolute happiness to deserting misery is the message of human life itself.
The Homeric epics are not only very modern texts in the sense that they teach us about the consequences of political dispute in times of crisis and war or about the desperation of refugees in their fight for survival. They are also texts that search for the deeper definition of the human and the divine. They are magnificent artistic mirrors reflecting in a geometrical way a complex world of emotions – that is, the human psyche itself. Concepts like honour, heroism, strife, hubris, guilt and revenge balance each other, offering the first seeds of Greek tragedy and comedy and justifying the catalytic impact of the Homeric epics on the world’s psychology, philosophy, politics, rhetoric and theatre.
Homer’s legacy cannot easily be summarised because it is the story of a world that has been part of our entertainment and education for almost three millennia. In my talk I will demonstrate the impact of Homer’s epics on the literary work of Constantine P Cavafy (1863–1933), one of the most important modern Greek poets. I will do this by highlighting common themes between Homeric and Cavafean culture horizons but also by offering the audience the aesthetic pleasure of listening to three of Cavafy’s poems in English with live piano accompaniment. Hence, I am hoping to explore the audience’s emotions through a combined experience of academic talk, poetic reading and music.
Constantine P Cavafy is often characterised as the “poet of old age” because he has acquired his distinct poetic features late in his life. In his poems he summarises the anxiety of the human soul when faced with the greatest obstacles of life: loneliness, isolation, sorrow, despair, separation, vanity, old age and death. His protagonists are not crashed by the difficulties but preserve their dignity and face failure with courage. Although he is influenced by romanticism and symbolism, Cavafy’s writing is original and possesses classical quality. Most of his themes are taken from the Greek historical and mythological past and the real world.
Artists from all over the world have been influenced by Cavafy’s poetry. He is considered to be the most important modern Greek poet, with international recognition, and his work has been translated in more than 200 languages all over the world. Cavafy’s reading of Homer is filtered through important translations of his time (into English by A Pope, into French by Mme Dacier and into modern Greek by A Pallis and J Polylas). Sometimes he also visited Homer’s original Greek text. From 1893, with Priam’s Night Journey, until 1911, with the publication of Ithaca, Cavafy constantly engaged with the world of Homer. The result of this engagement is several poems that are either inspired by Homer and the ancient Greek world. Cavafy has also produced a prose essay on the End of Odysseus (1895).
In the poem Betrayal (1904) (alternative translations of the title: Perfidy, Unfaithfulness), Cavafy is inspired by Plato’s Republic. He composes a poem, which is a reflection of the Homeric gods, their anthropomorphic psychology, their imperfections and their human passions. The poet starts with the image of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, the parents of Greek hero Achilles. The joyful atmosphere is reinforced by Apollo’s prophecy that the child born by this union will have a long and happy life. Thetis is happy about Apollo’s words and she rejoices when Achilles becomes the most beautiful hero of Thessaly.
But soon the elders bring the bad news that Achilles was killed at Troy. And when Thetis, in her dramatic lamentation, remembers Apollo’s promises in her wedding about Achilles’ long and happy life, she asks in rage about the whereabouts of the “wise” prophet when her son was killed. The poem reaches its dramatic climax with the elders’ abrupt answer: Apollo himself went down to Troy and with the Trojans killed Achilles.
At the very core of Cavafy’s poem the reader finds an ironic commentary on the tragedy of human life generated by the antithesis of Thetis’ ignorance and Apollo’s knowledge of the future. Apollo’s deception of Thetis is characteristic of the Homeric gods. Cavafy is eager to engage in a dialogue about the mechanics of mortality and immortality in the Homeric world. Apollo is the symbol of the deceptive god who represents the unpredictability of human life and death. Thetis, meanwhile, embodies the archetype of a very human mother who tries to strike a balance between her immortal nature and the mortality of her own son.
With the poem Trojans (written in 1900 and published in 1905) Cavafy manages to move beyond Homer and comes closer to the creation of his own poetic universe. The poem is inspired by a famous episode of the Trojan War in the Iliad in which the leader of the Trojans, Hector decides to face the best of the Achaeans, Achilles in a duel outside the walls of Troy. Hector’s parents, king Priam and queen Hecuba are trying to convince Hector not to fight Achilles but without success. In his poem Achilles and Hector are not anymore the Homeric leaders of the Greeks and the Trojans who gained glory and fame through their battles at Troy. The poet transforms the Homeric heroes into universal symbols of our mortal life: Hector and the Trojans represent us, the common mortals who are paralysed by the fearful idea of death and try to flee its inevitability.
We humans (including Cavafy) are the Trojans whose efforts are destined to fail when facing the supernatural force of Achilles, who symbolises the unstoppable reality of death. The walls of Troy symbolise our lives and they contain both individual and collective memories and emotions. Hector’s parents, Priam and Hecuba, are our friends and relatives who are weeping for our predestined mortality. Cavafy in the Trojans has transformed the Trojan War into the war of our lives, the war of survival of humanity against nothingness. Cavafy expresses through the Trojans his own sorrow for the mortal outcome of the human experience.
The first version of Ithaca was written in 1894 and was entitled Second Odyssey. It was a poem written before Cavafy established his own poetic space and that is why it is said to suffer from literary congestion (it draws inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Tennyson’s Ulysses). The Second Odyssey narrated Odysseus’ decision to leave Ithaca because of the monotony of his life there.
Ithaca is Cavafy’s masterpiece and the most famous of his poems. It was written in 1911 and belongs to his philosophical poems inspired by Greek mythology. The central idea of the poem is that people setting out for a purpose in their life acquire knowledge and experience, which are superior to this cause. However, this journey is not a Homeric return. It is the journey of life and Ithaca is the destination.
Cavafy abolishes the very definition of the Homeric Odyssey as a song of return breaking free from the classical tradition and narrates a tale about the human journey of life. In this way Ithaca is a step beyond Homer and Dante and different than Tennyson because there is no change of course along the journey and there is no second departure after the return.
If in the Second Odyssey Cavafy introduced for Odysseus a thirstiness for freedom away from love and affection of the family, in Ithaca there is advice for the pursuit of high intellect and rare emotion, the combination of bodily pleasure and knowledge of the mind. The Homeric protagonists of the Odyssean myth (Odysseus, Penelope, Telemachus, Laertes) disappear in Cavafy’s Ithaca. Odysseus’ enemies (Laestrygonians, Cyclopes, Poseidon) are the obstacles that we encounter in our lives when our soul sets them before us. The poem is then transformed into a metaphor, which advises the reader on how to live the journey of life and how to acquire true wisdom.
Cavafy understood that the Homeric epics are not only ancient texts, which entertain us and make us travel to the distant world of the mythological past. They are also stories that talk about our future as a human race and that educate us about the importance of ideas like friendship, fidelity, fatherland, family, fatherhood and motherhood, hospitality or concepts like loss, revenge, adultery and death. From this point of view Homer comes out from a well of time with depth of 28 centuries and demands not only to be read by us but also to be loved with passion and strength of soul as a compass that leads us to the understanding of our own self.
Cavafy seems to know this when he proclaims: “Where Homer decided to halt and put a full stop, it is difficult and dangerous for anyone else to wish to continue. But it is in the difficult and dangerous tasks that the great craftsmen are successful”.
Dr Antony Makrinos is a teaching fellow in the Classics Department at University College London. In 2016, as part of UCL’s Festival of Culture, he delivered a lecture about Homer’s Legacy in Cavafy’s poetry
This article was first published by HistoryExtra in 2016