The Splendour of a Morning, by C.P. Cavafy, Barbarian Press (2016)

Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) is generally considered to be the greatest Greek poet of modern times and one of the most influential poets of the previous century. Cavafy was born in 1863 in AlexandriaEgypt, and spent most of his life there, though he did live in England for much of his adolescence, “developing a command of the English language and a preference for the writings of Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.” Cavafy wrote over 150 poems, though many are incomplete and he typically refused to formally publish them during his lifetime. Because of this, he was largely unknown, even in Greece, until a couple of years after his death with the publication of his first anthology by his literary executor, Alexander Singopoulos. Despite this, Cavafy was, more than anyone, responsible for the Greek poetic revival.

David Smulders, who bravely and quite effectively provides a new translation for this edition from Barbarian Press (Cavafy is considered extremely difficult to translate, hence ‘bravely’!), says in the introduction that one thing that appeals about Cavafy is that “he represents transition, the passing from one age to the next.” This is true from the standpoint of both his language and his themes.

From a language point of view, his poems fit somewhere in my knowledge between the ancient Greek I read as  a student and the more contemporary demotic Greek of the street that I was learning at that time. But Cavafy’s Greek is neither of these. His writing seems to employ what it needs of both formal & informal styles of the language to make his voice stand out.

In one poem we might meet a character out of Homer or classical Greek history; the next moment we are in the Hellenistic period, and further on we might encounter Cavafy in his own time, devouring the memory of an old experience.

This importance of this last thematic point is further highlighted, in a wonderfully evocative fashion, by Mr. Smulders:

Traveling in Greece is like wandering back and forth in time, throwing chronology out of the window, and this is where Cavafy’s poetry seems to be most comfortable, acknowledging the past in order to savour its sweet and poignant moments while always looking forward.

This new Barbarian Press edition contains more than two dozen early poems of Cavafy, quite enough to give the reader a clear picture of exactly what Mr. Smulders points out. Here are just a few examples of Cavafy’s contemplative and emotional sides:

One of my favorites from Cavafy, The Morning Sea, is simple in its reflection:

Here let me stand. And let me look on Nature awhile —
seas of the morning and the deep blue
of the cloudless sky and the golden shores, all
beautiful and ever brightening.

Here let me stand. And let me enjoy the sight
(truly I caught a glimpse when I first stood here),
not just fantasies of mine,
these recollections, my illusions of pleasure.

Having recently lost someone who was so important in my life from years past, Voices completely captures what happens to me nearly every night:

Those perfect voices, the beloved ones,
voices of the dead or those
who are lost to us, like the dead.

Sometimes in dreams they speak to us;
sometimes the mind will hear them in a thought.

And for a moment they are hearkened back;
those voices from life’s first songs,
like distant music fading in the night.

Similarly, Long Ago, captures figments of life from years past:

If only I could express this memory …
but it has flickered out … just as nothing lasts —
for it lies, long ago, in the tender years of my youth.

Skin, fresh with the scent of jasmine …
In August — was it August? — that evening
I can just recall those eyes: they were, I think, blue …
Ah yes, blue, a deep sapphire blue.

In Ides of March, Cavafy hearkens back to Caesar, never be so sure, read life’s messages from Artemidorus!

Beware of Greatness, o Soul,
and if you can’t overcome your ambitions,
temper your pursuit with discretion;
and with each advance you make
be ever more watchful and cautious.

In The Satrapy, we confront head on the divergence between our private grandiose thoughts of ourselves and the reality of our failure to live up to such (here are the first few lines):

What a shame — since you are primed
for great and wonderful deeds —
that an unjust fate always denies you
encouragement and success;
too bad that you are waylaid
by vulgar habits, mediocrities and trifles;

Monotony, certainly what is in store when ennui is allowed to set in!

One Monotonous Day treads upon another
monotonous day, unchanged. The same things
will happen and rehappen,
the same moments fund us as they leave us.

A month goes by and brings another month.
What happens next is easily predicted:
it is the tedium of yesterday,
and so the next day forfeits its resemblance to tomorrow.

The title of this edition is taken from the last line of Desires, from which comes the ingenious analogy of unfulfilled desire with death in the throes of beautiful youth.

Like the beautiful bodies of those
who died before they had aged,
shut away amid tears in a grand mausoleum,
with roses by their heads and jasmine at their feet,
so do those desire seem that have passed
without fulfillment, without attaining
one night of pleasure, or the splendour of a morning.

Candles perfectly states the wish to look ahead, while melancholy of the past and the quick passage of time always somberly hangs within us.

The days ahead stand before us
like an array of attendant candles —
golden little candles.

The days past stay behind,
a joyless line of burnt candles;
wisps of smoke rise from the nearest of these candles,
ever colder, shrunken and melted.

I don’t want too see them; I miss their beauty,
and recalling them I miss the light they first emitted;
I look ahead to the attendant candles.

I don’t want to turn back and to my hour find
how swiftly the dark trail grows,
how swiftly the lightless candles increase.

Ithaka remains a favorite, as Cavafy’s call for us to experience the journey of life rather than the destination is a powerful call to live life to the fullest. Unlike Odysseus in Homer’s epic poem, in which Odysseus always longs for home, Cavafy tells us that we should not rush through life:

As you set out, on the way to Ithaka,
pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.

Pray that the road is long;
may you find countless summer mornings,
brimming with pleasure and joy,
as you arrive at harbours yet unseen,

passing from Egyptian town to town,
to learn, and learn from those who know.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind;
arriving their is your destiny,
but do not hurry the journey at all.
Better to take many years,
so that you reach the island an old man,
rich with all you have gained along the way,

Like all editions from Barbarian Press, The Splendour of a Morning is simply gorgeous. The design and execution is masterly. It is always a pleasure to study the work of artist Peter Lazarov, especially when printed from the wood with such expertise as is shown here. The types are Antigone and Van Dijck with Open Kapitalen for display, all designed by Jan van Krimpen, handset by Crispin Elsted. The text paper is Zerkall Smooth White Wove, which is substantive and smooth. The standard copies are bound by Alanna Simenson at Mad Hatter Bookbinding Company in split boards with a labelled silk spine while the Deluxe copies are bound in split boards with a labelled morocco spine and are slipcased with a folder containing strikes of Peter Lazarov’s five engravings. The edition is limited to 50 Standard and 50 Deluxe copies. Like all Barbarian publications, these have sold quickly. There are only a small number (single digit) of Standard copies left at C$495, so I suggest moving quickly to procure one for yourself. The Deluxe is sold out.

{Ed. Note: As an aside, there is an excellent article on Cavafy in the New Yorker here. Also, Cavafy aficionado’s must read through The Cavafy Archive website, created by the Center for Neo-Hellenic Studies. “It contains all of Cavafy’s major works in the translation of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (edited by G.P. Savidis), plus select alternative translations. It also contains a wealth of unpublished material from the poet’s Archive, plus a Cavafy Companion section and up-to-date information on Cavafy’s seminal presence in today’s world, as seen through the web.“}

About the Edition

  • Designed by Crispin Elsted
  • Printed by Jan Elsted
  • Translated from the Greek, and introduction, by David Smulders
  • Wood-Engravings by Peter Lazarov, printed from the wood
  • Type is Antigone and Van Dijck with Open Kapitalen for display, all designed by Jan van Krimpen, handset by Crispin Elsted
  • The text paper is Zerkall Smooth White Wove
  • Bound by Alanna Simenson at Mad Hatter Bookbinding Company in Sooke, B.C.
  • Standard copies bound in split boards with a labelled silk spine, Deluxe copies bound in split boards with a labelled morocco spine and are slipcased with a folder containing strikes of Peter Lazarov’s five engravings
  • Greek text, edited by Anthony Hirst,  printed with his permission, and that of Oxford University Press
  • Limited to 100 copies (50 standard and 50 Deluxe)

Pictures of the Edition

(All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Book in Slipcase (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Book in Slipcase (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Cover and Spine (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Cover and Spine (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Spine (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Spine (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Cover (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Cover (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Frontispiece
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Title Page
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Title Page
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Copyright and Contents
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Copyright and Contents
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Text
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Macro of Text
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #2
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #2
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #3
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #3
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #4
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #4
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #5
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Sample Text #5 (Notes)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Colophon and Illustration #5
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Colophon
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Extra Set of Prints (Deluxe)
The Splendour of a Morning, Barbarian Press, Extra Set of Prints (Deluxe)

One thought on “The Splendour of a Morning, by C.P. Cavafy, Barbarian Press (2016)

Leave a Reply