In "Portrait of a Romantic" (which I posted earlier this week), A. S. J. Tessimond describes a Romantic as one who "tries to climb the wall around the world." This image reminded me of a poem by C. P. Cavafy which is not necessarily about Romanticism, but does involve, well, walls.
With no consideration, no pity, no shame,
they have built walls around me, thick and high.
And now I sit here feeling hopeless.
I can't think of anything else: this fate gnaws my mind --
because I had so much to do outside.
When they were building the walls, how could I not have noticed!
But I never heard the builders, not a sound.
Imperceptibly they have closed me off from the outside world.
C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard) (Princeton University Press 1992).
Now, before coming too quickly to the conclusion that Cavafy was a paranoiac, we should consider a few things. First, although he worked as a clerk in the office of the Third Circle of Irrigation in the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, Egypt, Cavafy's life was not conventional. He perhaps had good reason to feel isolated or cut-off from the world around him. But, from what I have read of his life, he seems to have been an equable, mild-mannered person. Which is not to say, of course, that his life was devoid of passion.
Second, who among us has not had a walled-in sensation from time to time? For instance, think about the 20th century for a moment. Doesn't the very thought of that century give you a feeling of claustrophobia? Or, on a lighter, more contemporary, note, consider two words: "reality television." Thousands of years of civilization have brought us to this flowering of human potential. One might get the sense that the wall-builders are -- without consideration, pity, or shame -- assiduously at work all around us as we speak. But perhaps I am just being paranoid.
Here is an alternative translation of the poem by Daniel Mendelsohn. Unlike Keeley and Sherrard, Mendelsohn has followed the couplet arrangement and rhyme scheme employed by Cavafy in the Greek original.
Without pity, without shame, without consideration
they've built around me enormous, towering walls.
And I sit here now in growing desperation.
This fate consumes my mind, I think of nothing else:
because I had so many things to do out there.
O while they built the walls, why did I not look out?
But no noise, no sound from the builders did I hear.
Imperceptibly they shut me off from the world without.
C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn) (Alfred A. Knopf 2009).