On Translating C.P. Cavafy’s “Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians”

By George Economou

Featured Art: Green and Blue: The Dancer by James McNeill Whistler

Άγε, ω βασιλεύ Λακεδαιμονίων

Δεν καταδέχονταν η Κρατησίκλεια
ο κόσμος να την δει να κλαίει και να θρηνεί·
και μεγαλοπρεπής εβάδιζε και σιωπηλή.

Τίποτε δεν απόδειχνε η ατάραχη μορφή της
απ’ τον καϋμό και τα τυράννια της.
Μα όσο και νάναι μια στιγμή δεν βάσταξε·
και πριν στο άθλιο πλοίο μπει να πάει στην Aλεξάνδρεια,
πήρε τον υιό της στον ναό του Ποσειδώνος,
και μόνοι σαν βρεθήκαν τον αγκάλιασε
και τον ασπάζονταν, «διαλγούντα», λέγει
ο Πλούταρχος, «και συντεταραγμένον».
Όμως ο δυνατός της χαρακτήρ επάσχισε·
και συνελθούσα η θαυμασία γυναίκα
είπε στον Κλεομένη «Άγε, ω βασιλεύ
Λακεδαιμονίων, όπως, επάν έξω
γενώμεθα, μηδείς ίδη δακρύοντας
ημάς μηδέ ανάξιόν τι της Σπάρτης
ποιούντας. Τούτο γαρ εφ’ ημίν μόνον·
αι τύχαι δε, όπως αν ο δαίμων διδώ, πάρεισι.»

Και μες στο πλοίο μπήκε, πηαίνοντας προς το «διδώ».

Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians

Cratisicleia did not deign to allow
the people to see her weeping and grieving;
she walked in stately silence.
Her serene demeanor revealed
nothing of her sorrow and her torments.
But even so, for a moment she couldn’t contain herself;
and before she boarded the hateful ship for Alexandria,
she took her son to Poseidon’s temple,
and when they were alone she embraced him
and kissed him, who was “suffering grievous pain,” says
Plutarch, “in a state of conturbation.”
But her strong character fought back;
and regaining her self-composure, the magnificent woman
said to Cleomenes, “Come, O King of the
Lacedaimonians, when we come out
of here, let no one see us weeping
or acting in any way unworthy
of Sparta. For this alone is in our power;
our fortune will be only what the god might give.”

And she boarded the ship, heading for that “might give.”

This late poem of Cavafy’s has customarily been viewed as closely related to another, which dates from 1928, entitled “In Sparta,” because they are both drawn from the same source, The Life of Agis and Cleomenes, 22. 3-8, by Plutarch (d. 125 A.D.), one of Cavafy’s favorite historical authors. Essentially two parts of the same story, if read side by side they form a perfect diptych––each poem is twenty lines long––in which two scenes of intense personal drama between Cleomenes III of Sparta and his mother, Cratisicleia, occur. Charged with highly different, at times opposite, emotions from those that trouble the two characters in “Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians,” their interaction in “In Sparta” provides necessary exposition as well as the contrastive framework out of which the ironies of the subsequent poem arise: Cleomenes, who reigned in Sparta from 235 to 219 B.C., having sought the aid of Ptolemy III of Egypt in his war against Macedonia and the Achaean League, was required to send his children and mother to Alexandria as hostages in return for Egypt’s  support,  a humiliating proposition that Cleomenes hesitatingly and with great trepidation manages to communicate to Cratisicleia only after she draws him out, but which she bravely accepts in high spirits.

In Sparta
King Cleomenes didn’t know, didn’t dare––
didn’t know of any way he could say
this to his mother: Ptolemy was demanding
that as security to their agreement she would be sent to
Egypt, too, and held hostage;
a very humiliating, unseemly thing.
And he kept going on to speak, and kept faltering.
And he kept starting to say something, and always stopped.

But the peerless woman caught on to him
(she’d already heard some rumors about it),
and she encouraged him to speak up.
And she laughed and said she’d certainly go.
And even rejoiced that she could still
be useful to Sparta in her old age.

As for the humiliation––well, she was indifferent to it.
And naturally no Lagid-come-lately
was equipped to grasp the Spartan soul;
so then his demand could not
in fact humiliate a Royal
Lady like her: mother of a Spartan king.
(1928)

Because of this unique relationship between “In Sparta” and “Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians,” my experience of translating the second poem involved an unusual level of attention to the prior poem’s influence on the way Cavafy composed the second. If he, as I believe, understood in the final analysis that he had written them as if they were two movements or acts of a poetic drama, it was incumbent on me to pursue a similar approach to the making of my translation. Following Cavafy’s strict sequential order of his poems, I have left them in their state of narrow separation by nine poems in my own recent collection’s chronological order,1 but following his lead, I have juxtaposed them here and invite the reader to join in the compelling recognition of the advantages of considering them in the closest of terms.

In the first consideration of their common source, we may be struck that these two poems are as close in the narrative of Plutarch as they are above, for “In Sparta” and “Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians” derive their basic scenes and action from two consecutive paragraphs in his history. Yet, with one notable exception, it is mostly in the differences between source and poems, what Cavafy omits of Plutarch in his poems and what he adds and changes, that we may witness the transformation of historiographic narrative into poetry. In both poems, Cavafy eliminates the mention of Cleomenes’ children as fellow hostages to Alexandria, thus intensifying the two different sets of emotional nexus between him and his mother. Cavafy’s additions and changes to Plutarch’s text in “In Sparta” contribute to the stronger characterization of Cratisicleia in the dynamic between royal mother and son through the reversal of agency. In Cavafy’s poem it is the mother who gives the son the courage to speak up finally rather than Cleomenes emboldening himself to do so, as in Plutarch. In keeping with this shift in the queen’s portrait, Cavafy introduces the epithet “peerless” (in my more literally accurate translation of υπέροχι, as opposed to “remarkable,” “magnificent” and “extraordinary” by others) just as she takes control of the situation, which anticipates her even stronger presence and appropriate description as “magnificent” in the later poem. Finally, Cavafy sharply departs from Plutarch’s text and composes an entirely original last stanza as the closing of “In Sparta.” Beginning this stanza’s first line with the repetition from the poem’s sixth verse of the explicit addition of the “unseemly” and “humiliating” nature of Ptolemy’s demands in the eyes of the Spartans, he reinforces Cratisicleia’s courageous and proud embracing of what she regards as her duty to country and reveals the contempt in which she holds the literally “of” (or “born”) “yesterday” (Λαγίδης χθϵσινός) scion of the Macedonian royal line of Egypt, which I translated as a “Lagid-come-lately,“ as opposed to the “naïve,” “parvenu,” “arriviste,” and “upstart” in other translations.

This mettlesome, perilously close to overconfident, demeanor of Cratisicleia’s corrects her son’s unsteady grip on their situation and pervades the mood of the rest of the poem. It also makes for a good fit with Cavafy’s choice to color the narrative with the borrowing of the stylistic convention of parallelism from the traditional Greek folksong of a much later era than those of its Spartan principals or their historian. The rolling repetition of the verbs in the poem’s first stanza, which is held in check by the original’s striking virtually monosyllabic λόγο πὡϛ νά πεί (tersely rendered by me with the internally rhyming any way he could say), is reminiscent of a manner in which the demotic songs of Greece at times recorded heroic and tragic historical events as seen through the eyes of the people. That Cavafy uses it to describe the indecisive plight of Cleomenes rather than his mother’s brave response to their difficult state of affairs, prepares, in its paradoxical way, not only for Cratisicleia’s passing heroic moment in the rest of “In Sparta,” but also, more significantly for the fateful peripeteia, which had to have occurred somewhere between the two poems, so to speak, perhaps as the Spartans made their way to Taenarus for the embarkation (a detail mentioned by Plutarch but omitted by Cavafy), when the queen and her son recognized the truly foreboding meaning for them of the agreement with Alexandria. It is this deeply upsetting understanding and acceptance of the tragic irony of their changed condition from one of a challenge to be met with boldness and pride to one of unavoidable submission to a journey into uncertainty that informs the tone and action of “Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians” and permeates its every line.

Doing my best to convey in English these salient qualities of the earlier, but clearly implicated, poem required more of me than I at first recognized for the task of doing the same for the one that followed. This meant an additional line of involvement to my usual commitment as a translator to a poem’s melopoieia, that element of its art defined by Paul Valéry as “constraining language to interest the ear directly,” which, in the case of translating Cavafy, involves special attention to representing the rich-in-rhyme (even when not used in formal rhyme schemes) and polysyllabic sounds of Greek in an English abundant in assonance, alliteration, and internal rhymes in proximate positions within the poem. Thus, during the translation process I concentrated on instilling the sound in the first part of my English version with words that would individually and sequentially also reflect the deeply felt but privately withheld grief-stricken state of mind of Cratisicleia, a mental torture that melds with that of her son as she draws him aside into Poseidon’s temple. It is worth noting, incidentally, that she is as firmly in charge of the situation in each of the poems, and that he is consistent in his acquiescence to her guidance in both, an ominously ironic image of a man who was once one of Sparta’s most energetic and proactive kings but is now on the verge of his downfall. At this point near the center of the poem appears the ship bound for Alexandria, destiny’s vessel, the sight of which breaks the queen’s self-control. The key word in the seventh line “and before she boarded the hateful ship to Alexandria,” a line which introduces an image of her apprehensive movement in the direction of an incomprehensible destination that comes to its uneasy rest in the poem’s last line, is the adjective άθλιο, which has been variously and in general correctly translated as “detestable,” “shameful,” “cursed,” “miserable” (but inexplicably not at all by Daniel Mendelsohn), and my own “hateful,” a choice I made for the sake of my sense of its singular aptness not only to how Cratisicleia feels about the ship but to the strong emotion she projects toward the ship as well.

At this midpoint in “Come, O King of the Lacedaimonians,” the poet begins to quote Plutarch directly, starting with the two words I have translated as “suffering grievous pain” and “in a state of conturbation” to describe the shaken Cleomenes and then, following his own creative bent in describing the magnificent queen as having regained her self-composure, reports her speech in the temple to her son verbatim, beginning with the words he used for the poem’s title. Standing in perfect contrast to the invented, non-Plutarchian, closing stanza of “In Sparta,” which denotes the thoughts and opinions of Cratisicleia through indirect discourse, her speech here is articulated exactly, except for the line breaks, as written by Plutarch, one of the most sustained and impressive instances in Cavafy’s poetry of citations in a Greek other and earlier than his own.2

I have not attempted to translate this speech into an English other and earlier than our own. However, beginning with the two phrases I used to render the two words, διαλγούντα and σύντϵτραγμἐνον, with which Plutarch describes Cleomenes, I have tried to offer a hint of difference. I especially trusted that the Latinate “conturbation,” being derived from a synonym in another classical language for the second of these quoted words, might achieve such an effect. I also hoped for a possible evocation of the powerful, unforgettable refrain “Timor Mortis conturbat me” in the famous Middle Scots poet William Dunbar’s early sixteenth-century poem “Lament for the Makaris.” Although Cratisicleia’s speech in the poem started out as prose, after its skillful reconfiguration into verse it claims our attention with a series of alliterative voicings in ten words consolidated around μ and δ––particularly μηδϵἰς, μηδέ, δαμον διδώ—that beats its way through the last five lines, a phonetic effect (for which Plutarch must be credited) I tried only to approximate rather than duplicate with several words beginning with or containing our letter w.

It is fitting that Cavafy gives himself the stark last line of the poem, perhaps one of the greatest he ever wrote, though he gives its last word to Plutarch.   By quoting that “διδώ” which Plutarch first gave to Cratisicleia in his history, Cavafy prompts us to look beyond the exquisite intimacy of the tragically ironic moment in the Temple of Poseidon toward the characters’ unknowable future, which holds for us the answers he simultaneously withholds and alludes to in this final exquisite dramatic irony of his own making. One must take the greatest care in translating what is said in both of these final verses, for in its first saying it preserves all the uncertainty of a verb in the present subjunctive, “what the god might give,” only to be reiterated as a verbal noun at the very end of the poem as “that ‘might give’,” the unnamable fate toward which Cratisicleia is headed.3 And toward which we must head ourselves by reading further into The Life of Agis and Cleomenes, 37-38, where we will learn that not much later in Alexandria, the Spartan king took his own life following a failed rebellion, when the refuge the late Ptolemy III had granted him was rescinded by his successor Ptolemy Philopater. Shortly after this, the order for his royal mother’s execution was given.

¹ Complete Plus, The Poems of C. P. Cavafy in English, translated by George Economou, with Stavros Deligiorgis (Bristol, England: Shearsman Books, 2013).
² For an illuminating analysis of many of these well-known citations of classical, Hellenistic, and Byzantine Greek in the titles, epigraphs, and texts of some of Cavafy’s poems along with a discussion of the translation issues they raise, see Katerina Stergiopoulou, “Saving the Lacedaimonians: Towards a Translation of Cavafy’s Languages,” in Typography of Desire, ed. Karen Van Dyck, C.P. Cavafy Forum, June 2009, pp. 38-72. A version of this impressive article was recently presented as a paper at the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, Princeton University, on April 26, 2013.
³ Starting with the on target “as god might grant”/ “that ‘might grant’,” by Evangelos Sachperoglou, the following sampling offers a representative range of translations into English: by Keeley and Sherrard “in the hands of the gods”/ “‘in the hands of the gods’”; by Mendelsohn “the god provides”/ “that ‘provides’”; by Haviaras “in the god’s will”/ “that ‘will’”; by Kolaitis “what the god has willed”/ “what was ‘willed’”; and by Chioles “that lies with the gods”/ “‘ . . . that lies with the gods.’” Katerina Stergiopoulou, basing her own translation of the passage on Sir Thomas North’s sixteenth-century “Englishing” of Plutarch, a translation itself of a French translation of Plutarch, writes “as giveth the goddes”/ “the ‘giveth.’”


George Economou is the author of thirteen books of poetry and translations, the latest of which are Complete Plus––The Poems of C. P. Cavafy in English (Shearsman Books, 2013), Ananios of Kleitor (Shearsman Books, 2009) and Acts of Love, Ancient Greek Poetry from Aphrodite’s Garden (Random House, 2006). A Rockefeller Fellow at Bellagio, he has been named twice as an NEA Fellow in Poetry. In 2000, he retired, after 41 years of teaching at the University of Oklahoma, Long Island University, and Columbia. He died in 2019.

Originally appeared in NOR 14.

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