Arcadia Art Share: Couch on ‘The God Abandons Antony’
Editor’s Note: As part of Arcadia Art Share—a new series that features faculty, students, alumni and staff discussing literature and the arts—Randall Couch, poet and Adjunct Professor of English, examines C.P. Cavafy’s poem “The God Abandons Antony.”
By Randall Couch
Mark Antony, ruling the eastern Roman Empire with his lover Cleopatra, is besieged in his capital Alexandria by Octavian, bent on conquest. In Plutarch’s telling, the night before the city falls, Antony hears an invisible band of musicians and singers leaving the city, and realizes that Bacchus, god of wine and festive music—and Antony’s protector—is deserting him. He knows he will lose the city.
C. P. Cavafy’s great poem, “The God Abandons Antony” [full text] draws on Plutarch and Shakespeare to craft a moment of supreme poignancy—indeed of existential power. The unknown speaker’s voice addresses Antony directly, its “you” chillingly implicating the reader, and urges—no, dares—him to face the loss of what is most precious to him without looking away, without falling victim to despair or denial, and without tarnishing the beauty and pleasure of the beloved place by regret. Instead, Antony is challenged to open himself up, to drink in the “exquisite music” of the fading procession, to savor all the more fully that which he knows he must lose.
Though we cannot here appreciate Cavafy’s remarkable Greek sounds, in any of several translations we can feel the “midnight” of spiritual desolation, the shadow of death. Antony, famed for courage in battle, is indeed familiar with loss, “long prepared, and graced” for saying goodbye. His marriage to Cleopatra has cost him honor and reputation. If devotion and sacrifice are worthy, he is, as the speaker says, “worthy” of being lord of a city like Alexandria. But even he, it seems, falters now in resolve. To accept the loss of his city, which implies the loss of his love Cleopatra and of his own life, requires the deepest calm of all. “Go firmly to the window,” says the speaker. Face it. Abide with it. Observe the ritual.
For any of us who have faced a personal loss, or a reversal of fortune, Cavafy’s meditation maps the territory of responses. As we inhabit each of the possibilities—deceiving ourselves that it isn’t really happening, pleading for another chance or more time, cursing our luck or blaming ourselves for our own errors—we are gently led to see them as inadequate. For all of us who will age, the poem urges us to a “final delectation” and returns us to the sound of the “exquisite music” at its exit. Life—Alexandria—is a great gift, the poem suggests; don’t spoil it.
Poetry is art. There are many kinds of success, many paths and technical strategies to achieve it. I am more often involved with work that calls greater attention to the artifice of the verbal machine than does Cavafy’s poem. But even in translation, its armature of character, idea, sequence, selection of detail, and viewpoint evoke such a powerful presence that I will always be haunted by it. There are few short poems that conjure the bone of thought and the flesh of emotion into such intimate and stately animation.
That may be, in part, due to an old-fashioned quality of the thought: its moral power. Cavafy urges a response to loss that calls on our deepest reserves of dignity—a quality not much regarded these days—and fortitude. From time to time, at midnight, it’s good to go back to that window and listen.