The Vast Armies of the Benighted

A Scene from the Merchant Ivory Production of A Room with a View (1986)

I have never ceased to marvel how some homosexual authors as Marcel Proust were so brilliant at translating their knowledge of relationships into a more “acceptable” heterosexual context. This is also true of E. M. Forster, whose A Room with a View I have recently read. The following is taken from Chapter Seventeen of that novel:

It did not do to think, nor, for the matter of that, to feel. She gave up trying to understand herself, and joined the vast armies of the benighted, who follow neither the heart nor the brain, and march to their destiny by catch-words. The armies are full of pleasant and pious folk. But they have yielded to the only enemy that matters—the enemy within. They have sinned against passion and truth, and vain will be their strife after virtue. As the years pass, they are censured. Their pleasantry and their piety show cracks, their wit becomes cynicism, their unselfishness hypocrisy; they feel and produce discomfort wherever they go. They have sinned against Eros and against Pallas Athene, and not by any heavenly intervention, but by the ordinary course of nature, those allied deities will be avenged.

“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.