Cavafy Poem 73: Kaisarion





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Published on Jan 9, 2009

'Kaisarion' is poem no. 73 in the Cavafy canon.

Pronunciation, like spelling, is the very devil. People speaking the same language sometimes fail to understand one another. When ancient Greek and Latin meet English, chaos ensues. The Romans said not 'Hail Zizar!' as in the English version, but 'Ar-way Kizer' (Ave Caesar). The Germans got it right with their Kaiser. The son of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra was called not 'Size-arion' (Caesarion) but Kaisarion.

By August, 30BC, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Mark Antony were all dead and Kaisarion was the nominal ruler of Egypt. The invading Octavius Caesar, later called Augustus by the respectful Romans, who was a 'Caesar' because he had been adopted by Julius, coming into the presence of the boy pharaoh Kaisarion at Alexandria, is said to have spoken the words (referring to himself and the boy) "Two Caesars is one too many!" Kaisarion was murdered.

So we drift back (drift back from the present moment in the year 2008AD) to that same city of Alexandria around the year 1916-1918AD and to Cavafy's flat in the Rue Lepsius where, book on knee, he is himself drifting fondly back to the year 30BC and recalling the to him magic being Kaisarion. Wormholes in the fabric of space and time, through which we travel in the Tardis we call Art and Poetry!


Evening. Chair by the lamp. In my hands
an old book of Ptolomaic inscriptions,
vellum spine and marble boards,
beautifully printed on handmade paper.
The matter: formulaic highflown titles,
fulsome praise and flattery.
How glorious the Ptolomies, strong and wise,
everything they did a sounding epic!
The women of that illustrious line
half goddesses, Berenice and Cleopatra.

Having hunted down the references I required
just before closing the volume
I noticed a mention of Kaisarion.
At that name there came a flutter to my heart.
The eyes of vision opened. You were there,
standing before my chair, lightly garbed,
weight resting on one leg, staring forward
like a living statue.

We know almost nothing about you
but I have created by truly mystic art
and contemplation of all the wide world's beauty
an archetypal image, a magic being.

Late last night as the light in the lamp
flickered and died, I let it go out.
As the flame faded your imago formed,
your eidolon glowed before me, shimmered.
I shivered with longing, adoring your shape and face,
your immaculate conjured presence in my room
looking as you did in Alexandria
standing before the conquered people,
your people, as the Roman came:
your kohl-bright eyes a little tired,
trembling slightly at the naked knee,
hoping he would be merciful.

Had I been Octavius and you waiting there,
I'd not have complained of too many Caesars.


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