On the Edge of Climax:The Marginalization of the Dionysian, and Homosexuality, in C.P. Cavafy’s Their Beginning
David Hockney - The Beginning, 1966
By C.P. Cavafy
(Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
Their illicit pleasure has been fulfilled.
They get up and dress quickly, without a word.
They come out of the house separately, furtively;
and as they move along the street a bit unsettled,
it seems they sense that something about them betrays
what kind of bed they’ve just been lying on.
But what profit for the life of the artist:
Tomorrow, the day after, or years later, he’ll give voice
To the strong lines that had their beginning here.
The Dionysian, both the term and experience, was communal for the ancient Greeks, but becomes more restricted and private in modernity; after all, the contemporary civilized world cannot so comfortably accommodate a public expression of Bacchanalian excess. Still, C.P. Cavafy, who produced much of his greatest work in the early 20th century, limits himself from a full articulation of intimate homosexual love within his highly structured poetry. In his concise nine-line Their Beginning, the poet offers his readers only a glimpse of the Dionysian. The verse opens in a post-coital moment, just after the “pleasure” (1) of climax has ended and ironically closes before the next interlude of sensuality begins. By thrusting the Dionysian to the edges of his piece, and maintaining strict artistic control, Cavafy acknowledges the dangerous force of civilization on the two lovers; indeed, this force intrudes into the house of their “illicit” (1) affair in the poem’s first few lines. In response, the men seek to distance themselves from their homosexual identities, literally escaping the site of their consummation in lines four through six. However, as Cavafy shifts to Stanza Two, in lines seven through nine, he proclaims his artistry, creating a safer literary area for the couple to occupy. Still, the poet never opens the door to that room of “(fulfillment)” (1); he hides the blissful tumult. By cleverly concluding the poem in “their beginning” (9) though, Cavafy suggests the possibility of another truly Dionysian poem existing, one that exists in the imagination – and thus transcends the strictures of society.
Cavafy represents the public’s disapproving gaze through his use of pronouns; interestingly, this choice distances the poet from the men and their forbidden act, implying a fracture in his own identity. Although Cavafy aligns himself with the “artist” (7) in the second stanza, he separates himself from the lovers, watching the men from afar. Cavafy emphasizes their otherness by prominently employing third-person pronouns; “Their” appears at the start of the title and line one – “They” at the start of lines two and three. The capitalization and positioning of these words indicate the oppressive strength of a disparaging society. However, the same force that represses the two men suppresses Cavafy’s literary voice, compelling him to divide himself; after all, Cavafy assumes the role of voyeur, who enters the couple’s exclusive and excluded space directly alongside a censorious collective; the poet simultaneously intrudes on, and sympathizes with, the lovers.
Cavafy’s staccato punctuation and terse description – adorned only with three adverbs – highlight the men’s fast dart of shame once the slow glow of coitus has faded. Although the poet provides a potent emotional angle, he avoids rhetorical devices. Paradoxically, Cavafy strips the couple’s gestures of any romance when “They get up and dress quickly” (2). The word “quickly” evinces speed borne of regret; the two wish to flee from the scene of their crime. Cavafy foregrounds their rapidity of movement by including no enjambment in the first three lines – lines one and two end with periods and three with a semi-colon. It also seems significant that when the two don their clothing, the armor of convention, they move “without a word” (2). Cavafy employs this language of silence to represent the men’s stifled homosexuality. Afraid to express themselves, the men shrink to linguistic nothingness. They do not speak because they do not want to be heard. And sure enough, hurried secrecy envelops their sub-rosa movements. The next line takes them from the relative security of “the house, separately, furtively” (3). A comma, wedged between the two adverbs, visually stresses the content of “separately” – the men must split apart before stepping out. “Furtively” implies a guilty secrecy, fueled by the threat their transgression elicits. Because society considers their union indecent – forbidden by the law’s dictates – the lovers walk in peril when they leave the bed.
From lines four through six, Cavafy relies on ambiguous, elusive diction to convey the men’s anxiety surrounding the looming danger of recognition. Doubtless, the lovers attempt to place physical distance between themselves, the house, and their act, entering the streets anonymously. Still, a nebulous feeling of remorse clings to them, suggesting the inescapability of societal disgrace. Although the city holds to potential to be the ultimate Dionysian expanse, Cavafy writes in a measured form to capture the narrow confines of the men’s guilt. Although the two “move along the street” (4), hesitancy hitches their progress. For instance, Cavafy employs vocabulary of vague knowledge – “a bit”, “it appears”, “they sense”, “something” and “kind of” (4-6); the poet’s intentional syntactical diffidence parallels the lover’s emotional uncertainty. These phrases demonstrate a lack of authority and completeness; the men, like the sentences, will not reveal themselves proudly and fully. Cavafy also depends upon more explicit language of evasion. The men feel “unsettled” (4); this word evokes both discomfort and dislocation. Moreover, the lovers worry “something about them betrays/what kind of bed they’ve just been lying on” (5-6). It almost appears as if they are fearful that their past indiscretion – now invisible and existing only in their memory – can become manifest. They even imbue this personified shame with treachery – the ability to “[betray]” their dirty secret. Interestingly, Cavafy’s poetry refuses to expose itself any more than the men want to expose their truth.
Be that as it may, in the second stanza, Cavafy establishes creative control, declaring his role (albeit indirectly since he does not use first person) as “the artist” (7). Indeed, Cavafy almost seems like a classical god in line seven; after all, he does “profit” (7) from the lover’s complicated lives, benefitting poetically from their tangible misery and hidden ecstasy. However, the original Greek complicates this interpretation, since in it Cavafy speaks of himself not only as a lofty master, but also as a technician. Cavafy’s poetry is his craft; his poem issues, not from instant divine illumination, but instead from prolonged hard work. Molding ordinary happenings into artistic form requires time and patience. Even in English translation though, Cavafy applies language of the heavenly infinite to capture a very human gestation period. It may be “tomorrow, the day after, or years later” (8) when Cavafy hones the mundane into the sublime, his verse.
This protected literary space in the final stanza also creates a haven for the couple to more safely reside. By separating the last three lines from the frantic first stanza, Cavafy slows the poem’s pace, extracting the men from their earlier turmoil. Perhaps then, the list of ever-lengthening times in line nine applies not only to the poet’s process, as suggested above, but also to the men’s experience. Even if the lovers’ “illicit” (1) relationship itself is fleeting, it will endure indefinitely, and perhaps licitly, in this poetic place. After all, through his work, Cavafy “[gives] voice” (8) to the previously silent duo; he elevates their homosexual tryst by poignantly retelling the story. The “strong lines” suggests the firmness of the men’s bodies as well as the power of Cavafy’s art. Ultimately though, Cavafy only intimates the possibility of Dionysian release; therefore, in line nine, he circles back to the first Their Beginning – adding the word “here” – in order to produce the title for another, a secret, poem. “Here” leads to what cannot be read.
Even though Cavafy feels compelled to hide the men’s moment of climax, or hope of subsequent tenderness, his gorgeous lyricism inspired another artist to fill in part of the empty space surrounding Their Beginning. In 1966, “[years] later” (8), David Hockney created Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy, including The Beginning. Although Hockney reimagines both B/beginnings, his spare etching respects the poem’s taut, tight form. Still, Hockney subtly alters Cavafy’s original title, replacing the distancing pronoun Their with a less charged The. Moreover, Hockney’s lovers do not rush to cover themselves, separate or escape. Rather, they relax: their naked forms overlapping and their gazes direct. Although, like Cavafy, Hockney refrains from depicting the throes of Dionysian excess, his unashamed couple studies the viewer, quietly defying condemnation. Finally, their unblinking eyes and parted lips seem to conjure that invisible Cavafy poem, which exists beyond the edges of the page and possibility. This unseen, perhaps unwritten, work promises to be liberated from a repressive society – and the order, restraint and austerity of the actual Their Beginning; this art of the imagination shines, chaotic, bold, bright and whole.︎
Henry Jacob is a historian and social entrepreneur who believes in the power of publishing. He is currently a Fulbright scholar in Panama City, working as an associate researcher at the Centro de Investigaciones Históricas and as an intern at Ashoka.