I originally translated these poems about Julian the Apostate by Constantine Cavafy for an essay I wrote called Denying Julian, for the Cavafy Forum, University of Michigan’s Modern Greek and Classics publication. I received access to them via literal English versions from the Cavafy Archive in Athens and turned them into English poems.
I had to wait to publish them on their own until another poet, who had previously been given access, published his book. I published them in a French journal called Nth Position, which, alas, has gone seins en l’air.
In a boat upon the great river Nile
With two monks, his faithful companions,
The fugitive, exhausted Athanasius
— the virtuous, the pious, upholder of the faith —
Prayed. His enemies pursued him
And the hope of his salvation was slim.
The wind was against them
And they made scant progress in their decrepit boat.
When he ended his prayer,
He turned to look upon his friends
With a sorrowful gaze – and wondered
At their strange smiles.
While he had been praying, they felt
What was happening in Mesopotamia;
The monks knew that at that moment
The villain Julian had died.
Pegasius, the Bishop
They entered the beautiful temple of Athena,
The Christian bishop Pegasius
And the Christian prince Julian.
They looked upon the statues with desire and with tenderness —
But they conversed tentatively,
With innuendoes, in double-entendres,
With phrases full of protection,
For they were unsure of each other
And feared exposure,
The pseudo-Christian bishop, Pegasius,
And the pseudo-Christian prince, Julian.
When in a rage the soldiers killed
All the relatives of Constantine
And even the child — six years old —
Of Caesar Julius Constantius
Was endangered by their hideous passion,
The Christian priests, moved by compassion,
Found him and brought him into the sanctuary
Of the church. There they saved him, the six year-old Julian.
We are obliged to say, however, that This story has a Christian source.
But this is no paradox
In itself: priests of Christ
Saving the innocent children of Christ.
And if it was so — perhaps the great philosopher
Augustus was referring to this as well, with his
“Let there be oblivion of that darkness.”
Hunc deorum temp/a reparaturum
“Then an old woman, who had lost her sight, on inquiring who had entered and learning that it was the Caesar Julian, cried out that he would repair the temples of the Gods.” —Ammianus Marcellinus
Blind old woman, were you a crypto-pagan?
Or were you a Christian? That pronouncement of yours
That came to pass — that he who was entering
Vienne among cheers, the glorious
Caesar Julian, was destined
To serve the temples of the false gods —
This pronouncement that came true,
Blind old woman, did you speak it with pain,
As I would like to think, or did you say it — you wretch — with joy?