I came across this strange poem by Cavafy a couple of years ago when I was reading and translating some of his poems about Alexandria. Something about it lodged in my brain and I thought it would be good to translate it but put it aside until I came across it again a few days ago.
What struck me about it when I first read it- and again now – is the concrete detail of the Myris’s parents’ house and the description of the strangeness of the Christian funeral rite to a pagan. But most of all , I was struck by that sense of horror at the end of the poem when the poet flees the house, gripped by doubt that he never knew Myris at all, and not wanting his memory of him to be tainted by the Christianity that was a major part of his life.
When I heard about the tragedy of Myris’s death
I went to his home, although normally I avoid
Going into the homes of Christians
Particularly when there are bereavements or celebrations.
I stood in the hall. I didn’t want
To go further inside as I was aware
That the deceased’s parent were looking at me
Questioningly and with dislike.
They’d put him in a large room
That I could see partially
From where I stood: all precious carpets,
And vessels made from clay and gold,
I stood and wept to one side of the hall.
And I thought that our gatherings and outings
Without Myris would no longer have any value:
And I thought that I would not see him again,
At our lovely and indecent night parties,
Happy and laughing and reading aloud verses
With his perfect sense of Greek rhythm:
And I thought I had lost for ever
His beauty, that I had lost for ever
The youth I had adored intensely.
Some old ladies near me were speaking in low voices
About the last day of his life –
Constantly on his lips the name of Christ,
In his hands he held a cross.
Then into the room came
Four Christian priests who ardently
Said prayers and supplications to Jesus,
And to Mary (I don’t know their religion well).
Of course, we knew Myris was a Christian.
Since first we got to know him.
When, the year before last, he became part of our group.
He lived just like us.
More devoted to pleasure-seeking than any of us:
Lavishly frittering away his money on entertainments.
To the rest of the world happy-go-lucky,
He willingly launched himself into night quarrels on the roads
When our group chanced upon an opposing group.
He never spoke about his religion.
Indeed once we told him
We would take him with us to the Serapion.
But, I remember now, it was as if
He was offended by our jest.
Another couple of occasions come to mind now.
When we were making libations to Poseidon,
He withdrew from our circle and looked away.
When one of us, inspired by the god, said
‘May our party be under the favour and protection of the great
And sublime Apollo’ – Myris whispered
(the others didn’t hear him) “with the exception of me”.
The Christian priests in loud voices
Made supplications for the soul of the youth.
I noticed with how much attention
And intense care for the formalities of their religion
They prepared everything for the Christian funeral.
And suddenly a strange impression
Took hold of me. I somehow felt
As if Myris had left me:
I felt that, as a Christian,
He had been united with his family
And that I had become a stranger, very different;
I felt in addition a doubt come over me:
Perhaps I had been deceived
By my passion and had always been a stranger to him.
I rushed out of their hideous house,
Leaving quickly before my memory of Myris
Was taken over and corrupted by their Christianity.