Heaney offers a version of C.P. Cavafy’s poem «Tα δ’ άλλα εν Άδου τοις κάτω μυθήσομαι»
The poem set in classical times contrasts the views of an important figure governing an ancient Greek province with those of a sophist ‘philosopher’ in his company. The dialogue exposes the imponderable aspects of belief in respect of the afterlife, reckoned in classical Antiquity to reside below in Hades.
The title reproduces the last words spoken by Ajax in Sophocles’ drama of that name before he impaled himself on his sword.
A proconsul judges a line read from the ancient scroll to be true. Furthermore, poetry expounding what in Ajax’s community led the heroic warrior to kill himself is to his mind beautiful/ Sophocles at his most philosophical.
Like Ajax he will one day be liberated from his earthly condition and to his mind enter a better place where openness prevails and where, happy to be seen for what we are/ we’ll let (things) out frankly and completely. The Greek society he controls is a let-down, enclosed and concealing its weaknesses, inhibitions and private dealings: Here we’re like sentries/ guarding every locked-up hurt and secret/ we all cover up here, day and night.
The fly-in-the-argument is the sophist, with a slow half-smile, skilled at undermining the views of others with smirking superiority rather than setting up views of his own. His sceptical response cannot, of course, be answered by the living. How can you know, he asks if down there they ever talk about such things,/ if they can be bothered with the like at all.’ Or, for that matter, whether Hades and a world-after-death exist at all.
- Constantine Cavafy is the last poet of international stature in the collection: parents from Constantinople, born in Alexandria, Egypt; lived 1863-1933; native Greek speaker; spent 7 years in England. Despite journalistic ambitions, he worked in a relatively modest job within Public Works in Egypt. His inner life was clearly his richest asset. He gained his reputation as one of the most influential Greek poet of the 20c after his death. His interests in classical Greece and philosophy are factors here.
- Sophocles: Greek tragedian ( 495 BC – 405 BC) seven of whose plays have survived in complete form, thanks as with documents from many cultures to scribes who produced scrolls;
- sophist: a classical teacher of philosophy trained in the philosophical art of counter-suggestion amongst a group regarded a weavers of clever but fallacious arguments;
- 12 lines split 9/3; lines based largely on 11 syllables; no rhyme scheme;
- sentence 1 provides in-line echoes: pro-/ scroll (/most); true beautiful; Sophocles/ philosophical edged with final [ʌ] proconsul/ beautiful/ philosophical;
- the following sentence offers [ʊə] talk/ more; [i:] we’ll/ seen/ we carried in to (3) Here we’re/ secret/ completely; [e] sentries/ every/ let;
- the [ɪ] of the sophist recurs is/ if/ things; paired [ai] smile/ like and [ɔː] talk/ all; alliterative sibilant effect is overtaken by [t] and dental fricative [ð] That/ there/ they / bothered;
- An alternative version reads as follows:
“The Rest I Will Tell to Those Down to Hades”
“Indeed,” said the proconsul, closing the book,
Sophocles wrote it in a deeply philosophic mood.
protect with such great anxiety day after day,
“if they talk about things like that down there,
Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard in
C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Princeton University Press, 1992