Production and Function of Poetry in “Darius”

Cavafy is a poet who reinscribes Hellenistic history with his peculiar point of view and a sharp sense of irony in his historical poems. Among these, there are meta-poetic moments or whole poems that are about the writing process and the function of poetry. Through a comparison of these moments in the historical poem “Darius” with the critical essays of the author, we may explore how Cavafy the critic stands in relation to the speaker-poet in the poem, and how Cavafy the poet inhabits various positions in relation to his critical identity by way of analyzing distinct poetic notions presented in the text.

“Darius” is a whole poem dealing with the production process of a poem in a historical setting. The speaker is a poet named Phernazes working on his epic poem about Darius, son of Hystaspes, who is the ancestor of the contemporary king Mithridates, Dionysus and Eupator. Even before the speaker-poet explains his motives for the writing of this poem, it is evident that he tries to gain the favor of the “glorious king” by writing an epic poem about his ancestor Darius. The part he is working on when the poem begins is defined as ‘crucial’ because he is about to anticipate what was the emotional state Darius was in when he seized the kingdom of the Persians. The line is as follows: “But here / one needs philosophy; one must explicate / the feelings that Darius must have had”(99). This moment of anticipation in the poem can be paralleled to what Cavafy the critic aptly calls the “guess work” in his essay “Philosophical Scrutiny: Part One”. In the essay, Cavafy says “guess work indeed–when intelligently directed–loses much of its riskiness, if the user transforms it into a sort of hypothetical experience”(116). Phernazes “profoundly ponders the matter”, whether the feeling was “arrogance and intoxication” or “more like an awareness of the vanity of the grandeur”(99).

Phernazes struggles to penetrate into the mind of Darius. He is trying to achieve mimesis in his representation of a feeling. This endeavor can be likened to what Cavafy the poet does when he gives life to the secondary historical characters that are long dead, forgotten and unknown. In “Philosophical Scrutiny: Part One”, he gives advice on the subject of the guess work, that “the user can transport himself into the midst of the circumstances and can thus create an experience”(116). He also says that even if it is more difficult, the same is true for the matters of feeling as well. Phernazes is interrupted by his servant and receives the news regarding the break of a war with the Romans. His initial reaction, though significant for this essay, will be discussed farther in the text. In the fifth stanza, the point of view changes, from the third person singular to the first person plural. The questions of safety arise as Amisus is not a well-protected city. Since the Romans are formidable opponents, the speaker-poet turns to prayer, invoking the great protectors of Asia, in his despair. The last stanza is vital in understanding the final decision he makes about the feelings of Darius:

“And yet in the midst of all his upset, and the disaster,

a poetic notion stubbornly comes and goes—

far more convincing, surely, are arrogance and intoxication;

arrogance and intoxication are what Darius would have felt.” (100)

Phernazes here is not able to put himself in the shoes of a conqueror. He is rather at the opposite end of the battle. His land is about to be invaded by The Romans, and he is helpless. So, the personal experience of the poet still comes into effect, but in an unplanned way. The speaker poet projects his own life, experiences, and immediate feelings on to the poem in production, thus on to Darius.

Cavafy the critic asks rhetorical questions in the essay “Philosophical Scrutiny: Part One” about the relation between the personal experience of the author and the text: “Moreover–though this is a delicate matter–is not such study of others and penetration of others part of what I call ‘personal experience? Does not this penetration–successful or not–influence the individual thought and create states of mind?” (118). Cavafy puts this performance of the guess work forward as a part of the personal experience that is a “sound principle” in writing poetry according to him. Phernazes, in the same way, finds his way out of his initial predicament regarding his anticipation of Darius’ feelings by attributing his own situation to the hypothetical one. Because he is on the side of the conquered, his hostile feelings towards a conqueror are inevitably and perhaps only subconsciously aroused. Therefore, instead of assigning a rather philosophical notion of “the awareness of the vanity of grandeur”, he goes along with the more primitive and animalistic feelings of “arrogance and intoxication” when his bestial survival instinct comes into play and his personal experience mixes up with his poetic notion.

The subject of personal experience is frequently visited by Cavafy in his critical works, as well. Though it is a sound principle as mentioned above, he is not recommending being strict about it. The impediment is that “if one ought to wait for the experience every sorrow or perturbed state of mind in order to speak of it—one would find that what is left to write of is very little, and indeed many things might not be written at all about as the person who experienced them might not be the person talented to analyse and express them”(116). Cavafy here inserts once more the importance of the personal experience together with the irrevocable guess work and personal talent. At another point in the essay, he gives the example of Shakespeare in order to support his argument:

“Perhaps Shakespeare had never been jealous in his life, so he ought not to have written Othello; perhaps he was never seriously melancholy, so he ought not to have written Hamlet; he never murdered, so he ought not to have written Macbeth!!!” (118)

When Shakespeare is introduced to the subject of personal experience, one is unavoidably tempted to bring in the infamous notion of “negative capability” as devised by the English poet John Keats. Negative capability is that “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously — I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”. This notion is similar to that of Cavafy’s in that they both argue for the quality of “being content with half-truth”, that “the side [poet] treats is the truest, or the one oftener true”(119). Thus, in both of these similar notions of poetry, the poet does not try to find an empirical truth that needs mere discovering. He rather gathers impressions and finds the best way of conveying it with ‘oftener true’ interpretations that emanate from the poet’s own psyche. In the case of Phernazes, his attempt to understand what Darius “must have had” turns into “would have felt”, a visible change in the modal auxiliary verbs that indicate his acceptance of the half-truth which is affected by his own emotions regarding the recent war. On this notion, we may say what Cavafy the critic holds as a critical opinion happens to the speaker-poet Phernazes without his conscious will while he is writing his epic “Darius”. It is helpful to see Cavafy the poet as an intermediary in this relation as he realizes the opinion of the former by way of the latter.

Another question that emerges in the poem “Darius” is the function of poetry. If we return to his first reaction to the news of war with the Romans, we may understand better Phernazes’ stance on the subject. He is “dumbfounded” and the situation is described as a “disaster” for him. This humorous third stanza lays bare how the speaker-poet worries only about self-preservation, and shows the pragmatic concerns of the working poet. The king will be so busy with the affairs of the war that the poet cannot ask him to take notice of his Greek poem. When we come to the fifth stanza, we become aware of his intentions and plans regarding his “Darius”. His scheme is “to make his name, and to reduce his critics, / those envious men, to silence at long last”(100). This part reveals how the poet’s ambition and ego affect the creation of the poem, along with the politics of the current situation. His primary goal is to gain a position through sycophancy using his epic poem, and therefore make “those envious men” unable to critique him any further.

If examined closely, the poems on poetry are as revealing as the critical prose of the author when it comes to understanding their approach to the artistic creation process and function of poetry. It is insightful to trace the meta-poetic moments in the text and to compare and contrast them with the critical essays in terms of a thorough comprehension of the poet’s style. This comprehension opens a brand-new window into the reading experience in general, taking us to a point from which we can depart with various tools for further analysis.