I never had you, nor do I suppose will I ever have you.
A few words, an approach,
As in the bar yesterday, and nothing more.
It is undeniably a pity
But we who serve Art sometimes with the mind’s intensity can create pleasure which is almost physical.
But, of course, only for a short time . . .
extract from the poem, Half an Hour* by C.P.Cavafy
Cavafy’s poem, Half an Hour, spoke to me in my twenties more than any other poem. It summed up my yearning for and unrequited love. It was powerful. It was self aware. The poet knew that he was entertaining a fantasy. His muse knew how he felt and allowed him his fantasy, but no more. Instantaneously I felt that this was my poem. Incredibly I knew that somehow, Cavafy wrote it for me and about me. Immediately I felt that we shared a common experience. Reading the poem in its entirety, I all but understood that all of his sentiments I had experienced. Almost all. But I knew that Cavafy was a gay man. He was a gay man, a Greek man, an Orthodox Christian living in Egyptian Alexandria in the early 20th Century. This added other levels of meaning to his words, hidden meanings that once unearthed subsumed the meaning the poem had for me. I stopped empathising and sympathised instead.
I couldn’t ignore his biography. It wasn’t just the state of my mind but there was a physical barrier when I tried to access his poetry as well. At the time, to read Cavafy in English I had to look for him in anthologies of gay poetry. A special section in some bookstores. His writing although not explicitly gay was relegated to a marginalised audience because of his biography. Was that necessary?
When considering somone’s art, is their life story really necessary? When emotions are communicated from an anonymous pen don’t we have a freer license to feel? To feel without prejudging? Doesn’t the power of art assert itself in its ability to break us out of our existential prisons and deliver us into the arms of abstract, communal experience?
When I consider Shakespeare as a man and as an actor, poet, playwright, poacher, pennypincher, theatre entrepreneur, grain merchant, gentrified farmer, father, I’m pleased. His is a skeletal biography, a structure without flesh, a structure indicative not particular. Not quite anonymous, but almost. Regardless, the bones of his story indicate that he had his faults and his virtues. The good outweighs the bad. Reading his works and enjoying them on stage and screen has given me a lot of pleasure, as it does for many people, past and present. I can ignore some big inconsistencies in his biography. History is full of inconsistencies. They drive further enquiry. But then there’s this:
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten:
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’erread;
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all of the breather’s of this world are dead;
You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen),
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
Sonnet 81, by Shakespeare
The sonnet is telling us something. It seems the great poet was great via the work of another. This other’s penmanship will be forgotten once his contemporaries have passed away. He is resigned to it. There is a lot of yearning in this poem. He yearns for it to be another way.
It’s eerie too. The, “eyes not yet created, ” that’s us. He is off-loading on us. It almost feels like a challenge. Will we see through the fascade? He is too defeated to even hope.
So what are we going to do? This poet who gave the English language and stage pride and credibilty is languishing, entombed in obscurity or infamy. Do we do anything? Do we owe him anything? The poet is dead. Does it matter? What about the truth? Should it be pursued when the status quo is easier? If we uncover the poet’s secrets, unmask his real identity, will we lose the potency of his words? Should the emotional truth that spirals up from his pages, concertina down again to serve a historical, biographical interpretation? What if he or she has done something we couldn’t equate with our expectations for our literary hero? What if we find behind the mask an adulterer or a paedophile or a matron or a Catholic, bricklayer, bisexual, spy or a tyrant?
Biographies complicate matters. How much should we expect the life to reflect the art?
In looking through Shakespeare’s skelton closet will we find another Brontosaurus ? Have the specialists known about its existence and for how long ? Is it taboo? Could there be a reason for history to carefully guard this burial? Are we not approaching history’s sepulchre attired in the correct robes? When this metaphoric tomb is opened what will lie there? Will the hand that held Shakespeare’s pen disappoint us?
A recurrent theme in Shakespeare’s plays is the importance of honour. It’s a virtue more read about these days than upheld. Reading Shakespeare has nostalgia value. His world is one of honour, chivalry and grace, antiquated notions today. Embarrassing even. How do we honour the poet if we ignore this plea? Are we beyond chivalry, honour and grace?
* The translation of Cavafy’s poem is from the murky depths of my memory. Cavafy draws inspiration from personal moments in the lives of Byzantine personalities.
Photo Credit – Sepulchre in Tunisia