Three Models of ‘Poetic History’ in the Poetry of Constantine Cavafy
Keywords:Cavafy, Greek literature, Greek poetry, history
In his historical poems, Cavafy not only records historical facts but creates his own historical poetry, thus detaching himself from the historian – scholiast. His poetry yields three major models of presenting historical figures, ranging from protagonists who are purely fictional, such as the Hegemon from West Libya, to practically anonymous or little known figures, such as Kaisarion, and to important historical personages, such as Antonius. In all three types of poem, history is the background rather than the main theme. While the reader may be tricked by the (seemingly) historical references into believing that the poems are historical, they in fact refer to fictional characters. The poet applies history in order to highlight a certain theme or detail from the past which characterizes the historical period better than a well-known fact or major agent. These half-shaped figures are far more suggestive, allowing both poet and reader greater creativity in attributing to them a meaning within the historical frame. Well-known and famous protagonists (e.g. Antonius) are portrayed at the time of their fall, or at moments which reveal their weakness or strength of character. Even when their actions are known from history to have been pernicious and fatal to their agents, Cavafy does not determine their behaviour or reactions, leaving it to the reader instead to draw his own conclusions. Rather than to a certain period of the past, his heroes belong to all time: the atmosphere in which they act is a transient historical situation which allows any kind of development and interpretation. Influenced by symbolism, as is obvious from his prose essays and notes, Cavafy chooses the historical themes which permit an atmosphere of uncertainty, always requiring a knowledge of the historical facts and the ability to perceive the past within dramatic and poetic dimensions.
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