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As Much as You Can

And if you cannot make your life as you want it,
at least try this
as much as you can:  do not disgrace it
in the crowding contact with the world,
in the many movements and all the talk.

Do not disgrace it by taking it,
dragging it around often and exposing it
to the daily folly
of relationships and associations,
till it becomes like an alien burdensome life.

Translated by Rae Dalven

As Much as You Can

Even if you can’t shape your life the way you want,
at least try as much as you can
not to degrade it
by too much contact with the world,
by too much activity and talk.

Do not degrade it by dragging it along,
taking it around and exposing it so often
to the daily silliness
of social relations and parties,
until it comes to seem a boring hanger-on.

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard


Constantine Cavafy, 1863 – 1933. Greek Alexandrian poet. His work became a key factor in the revival and recognition of Greek poetry in the 20th century. Cavafy’s poems tend to fall thematically into 3 groups: historical / mythological, sensual / erotic, and philosophical / instructive poems, though such compartmentalization is necessarily reductive, perhaps not doing justice to the spirit which flows throughout and freely transcends categories. In his work Cavafy seems generally to have in mind an audience of artists or poets, or at least ‘the poet within’ a person. While it’s generally felt that the most finely technical aspects, the specifics of the careful craftsmanship of Cavafy’s poetry are untranslatable, his poems are in fact widely translated. How is this possible? W.H. Auden, in his introduction to a 1961 collection of Cavafy’s poetry translated into English (see sources, below), has this to say:

What, then, is it in Cavafy’s poems that survives translation and excites? Something I can only call, most inadequately, a tone of voice, a personal speech. I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it. Reading any poem of his, I feel: “This reveals a person with a unique perspective on the world.” That the speech of self-disclosure should be translatable seems to me very odd, but I am convinced that it is. The conclusion I draw is that the only quality which all human beings without exception possess is uniqueness: any characteristic, on the other hand, which one individual can be recognized as having in common with another, like red hair or the English language, implies the existence of other individual qualities which this classification excludes. To the degree, therefore, that a poem is the product of a certain culture, it is difficult to translate it into the terms of another culture, but to the degree that it is the expression of a unique human being, it is as easy, or as difficult, for a person from an alien culture to appreciate as for one of the cultural group to which the poet happens to belong . . . Thus, when reading a poem in one’s native tongue, one can find the sensibility personally antipathetic and yet be compelled to admire its verbal manifestation. But when one is reading a translation, all one gets is the sensibility, and either one likes it or one does not.

I read four translations of this poem (all available through the Toronto Public Library system), and found each one to have something a little different and appealing in it . . . with the result that I had difficulty choosing one—even two—for inclusion here (finally deciding on the two older translations). I find Cavafy’s voice, particularly in the mytho-psychological works, to be compellingly readable. (However, I’m not a great fan of Cavafy’s “sensual” verse which, in my view, is somewhat creepy; by its abundant quantity and obsessive preoccupation with personal sexual gratification, it creates justification for its being lumped into its own pigeonhole, and encourages commentators on the whole body of the poet’s work to allocate it into two or three compartments. In the case of these “erotic” poems, I’d say they have good grounds: read a couple of them and you’ve read them all, so far as message or substance goes.)
But do read some of Cavafy’s poems, they are ‘classic’. Where to start? Try this one: “The Horses of Achilles”. . .

The following are the sources quoted here:

The Complete Poems of Cavafy, 1961 Translator and Editor, Rae Dalven; Introduction by W.H. Auden
C.P. Cavafy Collected Poems, 1975 Translators, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; Editor, George Savidis