“In the month of Athyr …”

Mummy Portrait of Deceased

Early Christian Mummy Portrait of Deceased

One of my favorite poets of the last century was Constantine P. Cavafy, who lived most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt. I have just finished reading E. M. Forster’s Pharos and Pharillon: A Novelist’s Sketchbook of Alexandria Through the Ages, which ends which a chapter on “The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy.”

In it, he talks about meeting Cavafy in the street and having a marvelous conversation with him:

It is delivered with equal ease in Greek, English, or French. And despite its intellectual richness and human outlook, despite the matured charity of its judgments, one feels that it too stands at a slight angle to the universe: it is the sentence of a poet.

What a wonderful line! “It too stands at a slight angle to the universe.”

The Poet

The Poet

In his book, Forster quotes (and, I suspect, translated) this fragmentary funerary poem of a young man who died one November (“Athyr”), probably not unlike the mummy facial covering illustrated above:

It is hard to read . . . on the ancient stone.
“Lord Jesus Christ” … I make out the word “Soul”,
“In the month of Athyr … Lucius fell asleep.”
His age is mentioned … “He lived years …”—
The letters KZ show … that he fell asleep young,
In the damaged part I see the words … “Him … Alexandrian”.
Then came three lines … much mutilated.
But I can read a few words … perhaps “our tears” and “sorrows”.
And again: “Tears” … and: “for us his friends mourning”.
I think Lucius … was much bloved.
In the month of Athyr … Lucius fell asleep ….

In case you have never heard of Cavafy before, he was a major inspiration for Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet.