A well-balanced, smooth taste of sweet earth, wild berries and chocolate from Löfbergs EKO Dark Roast begins the morning with an aging paperback copy of Constantine P. Cavafy’s Collected Poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. A moment to consider longing.
Like the beautiful bodies of those who died before growing old,
sadly shut away in a sumptuous mausoleum,
roses by the head, jasmine at the feet–
so appear the longings that have passed
without being satisfied, not one of them granted
a single night of pleasure, or one of its radiant mornings.
The poem opens with a simile apparently shepherding the title into a full thought, an x is similar to y equation where x is “longing,” a state of desiring or pining or yearning for someone or something; a state of angelic and demonic significance in human nature. However, this simile has been turned around so that the “beautiful bodies of those who died before growing old, sadly shut away in a sumptuous mausoleum” refers to the plural of longing and in so doing casts this not as a general experience of being, but of unique events appearing throughout time and place, an ongoing condition of being human. As we start with the image, Cavafy appears to reference John Keats‘ poem “Ode On A Grecian Urn,” and its positing of beautiful youth forever kept young in a work of art, lovers about to kiss, never kissing, yet always remaining young; versus, the lovers of breath and mortality who have their kiss and then age into decay and death. The beauty of immortality fashioned so memorably in the second stanza.
Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!
Shed no tears for these lovers locked in time and near a kiss, they will never diminish, never leave the beautiful. So, Cavafy’s bodies like Keats’ bodies remain forever young, yet a note of sadness, more melancholy enters the poem with the poet placing youth in a mausoleum rather than an urn; of course, death connects to beauty with the urn where lover and beloved reside, yet the defiance in this gesture fades with “sadly shut away.” Cavafy offers emblems of the beautiful–roses and jasmine–yet as the simile and poem complete their arcs, beauty pales before “without being satisfied, not one of them granted” leaving longing a painful reminder of what could have been a night of ravishing, a morning of yet more ravishing. Though Keats may champion “Beauty” as it exists in “Art” as “Truth,” Cavafy seems more in the camp of William Blake who writes in “Proverbs of Hell” from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “Sooner murder and infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.” To act upon the creative turns actual the possibility, the potential of being fully human. In line with this, consider the following scene from Wings of Desire and its layers of longing unrealized. Angels watch and record reality in Berlin, immortal but also unable to experience and feel. An angel played by Bruno Ganz has traded the unending for the finite and follows his beloved played by Solveig Dommartin into a club where Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds perform “From Her to Eternity,” which portrays a young man obsessed with a woman who lives a floor above, close but distant. Meanwhile, an angel portrayed by Otto Sander steps ever close but ever faraway from the band as it plays. Time for another cup of coffee, before I go to the valley below.