Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read Constantine Cavafy’s “Remember, Body,” click below:
I said earlier that we would return to happier subjects, and the happiest of subjects must be love. Nevertheless, some years ago I made a strange discovery about this—or a discovery that seemed strange to me, at any rate.
On falling into reciprocated love for the first time, in my twenties, my mind immediately went to poetry. Now that I was happy, I wanted to read poetry, not prose. But I realized that almost all the poetry I knew by heart, or even knew to read, was about unfulfilled, thwarted, or tragic love.
That may simply give away something about the sort of poetry I had gravitated toward up until then. But I suspect—while not having done an audit on the matter—that it probably is the case that poetry about love tends to be written when the love is not going well. After all, what is the point of composing poetry when wildly in love? The poet should probably just enjoy being happy. Besides, as the often unhappy French writer Henry de Montherlant put it, “Happiness writes white ink on a white page,” which is to say, boring.
But there was one poet to whom I could go, a poet who wrote some unalloyed and ravishing poems about love and its fulfillment: Constantine Cavafy.
I was first introduced to Cavafy by a friend at university who studied Greek. She gave me the Rae Dalven translations, with an introduction by Auden. They were the standard English translations back then and for many years, until they were overtaken by Daniel Mendelsohn’s astonishing translation of the complete finished and unfinished poems, published in 2009.