Tuesday, September 2, 2014

When Cohen Met Cavafy

I wonder how many listeners to Leonard Cohen know that he took one of his finest songs from the Egyptian poet Constantine P. Cavafy (also known as Konstantin or Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, or simply Kavaphes)? Probably very few. And does it even matter? As someone who has sourced many of his own songs and poems, prose too, in the works of others (my portrait of LC, above left, is modeled on the cover of his album "Songs of Love and Hate"), I happen to believe that "borrowing" is the norm for every writer and artist, and that what matters is not the source, but the outcome. Others declare it plagiarism, and demand a share of the royalties!

And yes, it does matter - artistically. Because knowing the source adds layers of understanding, new meanings, variant meanings. I shall come back to this in a moment.

But first, how did it happen? Chance meetings, a
fter all, can happen in literature too, and sometimes it is interesting to wonder how, and when, and where, and even why. And the answer is - that sadly no one knows. The two cannot have met physically, as one died in the year before the other was born. But Cohen spent much of his life on the Greek island of Hydra, and may have read Cavafy then; or perhaps, like Lawrence Durrell, who did know Cavafy personally, perhaps it was through the fellow writers and artists who also inhabited that idyllic paradise. We do not know, though no doubt some future biographer will find out. And in the end this aspect truly does not matter. At some point Cohen encountered Cavafy, and the meeting inspired a song.

The song-writer did not number his lines, nor did the poet place letters next to his; those are mine. The reason will become clear at the far end of this blog.

Alexandra Leaving - Leonard Cohen

1        Suddenly the night has grown colder.
2        The god of love preparing to depart.
3        Alexandra hoisted on his shoulder,
4        They slip between the sentries of the heart.
5        Upheld by the simplicities of pleasure,
6        They gain the light, they formlessly entwine;
7        And radiant beyond your widest measure
8        They fall among the voices and the wine.
9        It’s not a trick, your senses all deceiving,
10      A fitful dream, the morning will exhaust –
11      Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
12      Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.
13      Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
14      Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
15      Do not say the moment was imagined;
16      Do not stoop to strategies like this.
17      As someone long prepared for this to happen,
18      Go firmly to the window. Drink it in.
19      Exquisite music. Alexandra laughing.
20      Your firm commitments tangible again.
21      And you who had the honor of her evening,
22      And by that honor had your own restored –
23      Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving;
24      Alexandra leaving with her lord.
25      Even though she sleeps upon your satin;
26      Even though she wakes you with a kiss.
27      Do not say the moment was imagined;
28      Do not stoop to strategies like this.
29      As someone long prepared for the occasion;
30      In full command of every plan you wrecked –
31      Do not choose a coward’s explanation
32      That hides behind the cause and the effect.
33      And you who were bewildered by a meaning;
34      Whose code was broken, crucifix uncrossed –
35      Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
36      Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.
37      Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving.
38      Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost.

The God Abandons Antony

C. P. Cavafy

A        When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
B        an invisible procession going by
C        with exquisite music, voices,
D        don't mourn your luck that's failing now,
E        work gone wrong, your plans
F        all proving deceptive — don't mourn them uselessly.
G        As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
H        say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
I         Above all, don't fool yourself, don't say
J         it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
K        don't degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
L        As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
M       as is right for you who were given this kind of city,
N        go firmly to the window
O       And listen with deep emotion, but not
P        with whining, the pleas of a coward;
Q       listen — your final delectation — to the voices,
R        to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
S        and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Cavafy was born in 1863 and died in 1933; other than a few childhood years in Liverpool and his ancestral Constantinople, he lived all his life in Alexandria, where he worked as a journalist and a civil servant, publishing around a hundred and fifty poems in Greek in broadsheet form to distribute to friends, and leaving dozens more unfinished in sketch form. He was a friend of E.M. Forster, who wrote a biography. Lawrence Durrell included a fictionalised Cavafy among the characters in his "Alexandria Quartet", and David Hockney has made a series of prints to illustrate some of his poems, of which "In The Dull Village" is below.


I have given the Cavafy poem line-letters and the Cohen song line-numbers, in order to make it simpler to identify the parallels; allowing the reader, and scholar, to undertake the remainder of the detective work alone.

Cavafy's A parallels Cohen's 1, though Cavafy's time is more precise.

Cohen's 2 transforms Cavafy's procession into the departure of the god, which is inferred by Cavafy's title; though in Cohen's version the god is only preparing his departure, where Cavafy's title is clear that this is abandonment.

Cavafy's C does not reach Cohen's version until 19.

Cavafy's D does not reach Cohen's version until 30, but Cavafy's failure is a stroke of luck, where Cohen's was planned self-destruction.

Cavafy's E is there in Cohen's 30, but only as deception, not self-destruction.

Cavafy's F is paralleled in Cohen's 9, but this time it is Cavafy who has the plan, and Cohen for whom it is all a trick.

The first part of Cavafy's G appears twice in Cohen, lines 17 and 29; the second part is transformed from "grace" to "honour" in Cohen's 21, but in the Cohen the "honour" falls on the lover, not the beloved.

Cavafy's H is repeated in Cohen's 11/12, 23/24 and 35/38, a mere phrase in the Cavafy becoming the verse-end line that culminates Cohen's whole purpose. But where Cavafy's line is heavy with irony (the god has abandoned Antony to death, yet it is the town that is portrayed as leaving him) Cohen's version is banal, a mere saying of farewell by the one who remains to the one who is departing, for reasons unclear.

Cavafy's I and J, which must be taken together, are paralleled in Cohen's 9, 15 and 27. and become thereby a second leitmotif in the Cohen. The dream in Cavafy's J repeats in Cohen's 10, both rejecting the notion of dream.

Cavafy's K is echoed in Cohen's 16, the one "degrading" where the other "stoops".

Cavafy's L is a repetition of his G, whose Cohen echoes are noted above; but Cohen varies the line in his version, in 17 being prepared "for this to happen", where in 29 he is prepared "for the occasion".

Cavafy's M has no parallel in the Cohen.

Cavafy's N is borrowed wholesale in Cohen's 18 but the continuation, in O, is changed in Cohen's 18 – improved, I would suggest, in its phrasing: "listen with deep emotion" becoming "drink it in"; though this may be an issue of the translation of the Cavafy rather than the original; I speak no Greek, so cannot comment further.

Cavafy's P, which is a continuation of O, does not reach Cohen's version until 31, where it becomes another exemplar of the "negative commandment" leitmotif.

Cavafy's Q is mentioned in Cohen's 8, while its continuation in R becomes a reminder in Cohen of the "exquisite music" of his 19, and the "procession" in R is hinted at by the "sentries" of Cohen's 4.

Cavafy's S repeats his H, as described above, but while Cavafy emphasises "the Alexandria you are losing", Cohen again reverses the loss.

Which leaves a number of lines that Cohen has added or, if you prefer, created. I leave my reader to discern those for himself.

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