Thursday, 28 January 2010

"Alexandra Leaving"/Leonard Cohen

How many songs can boast a genesis like this!

1.  Roman general Mark Antony, of "Friends, Romans and Countrymen" fame, falls for the glam, manipulative Egyptian queen Cleopatra, breaks with Rome (and his wife) and becomes "the bellows and the fan to cool a gypsy's lust" ("Anthony and Cleopatra", Act 1, Sc.1, Wm. Shakespeare,)

2.  Antony and Cleopatra take on Octavius in the sea battle of Actium, which they lose. It's the beginning of the end, and leads eventually to Antony's suicide and the famous asp in Cleo's bosom.

3. The Greek historian Plutarch (very anti-Rome, and most likely one of Shakespeare's sources), writes it all up in his "Life of Antony" including a detail that Shakespeare misses out, (p279 of the previous link) -  "And now Antony forsook the city (Alexandria) and the society of his friends, and built for himself a dwelling in the sea at Pharos . . . " He chucks his hand in!

4. The Greek poet C.P.Cavafy writing at the end of the 19th. Century, publishes (in Greek) the poem "The God Abandons Antony" The poem picks up on Plutarch's detail but reverses the abandonment, imagining that Antony, during one of his many drunken revelries, feels himself forsaken by the God of Merrymaking - Dionysus - and quits the city as indicated in 3. The link here takes you to a translation  of Cavafy's poem, which is "scholarly" and about as poetic as a recipe for mixing concrete.

5.  The novelist and (woefully neglected) poet, Lawrence Durrell, great fan of Alexandria, admirer of Cavafy and all things Hellenic, makes a free but much more moving translation of the poem, which can be found amongst the workpoints and notes in his astonishing four-volume  "Alexandria Quartet" (Can't find Durrell's translation on www!)

6. Leonard Cohen's lyric reworks these ideas. "Alexandria" is transmuted into a lover, Aleaxandra, who is leaving, perhaps dying.  But all the ideas and sentiments in Cavafy's poem and Durrell's translation are retained.

(The image in the clip is pure autocue. No apologies!  YouTube has many other version of the song, some with images which are inappropriate, even unpleasant, and some are merely silly.)


4 comments:

C.J.Duffy said...

Interesting, informative and a delight to read. Never been much of a Leonard Cohen fan myself although I appreciate what a talented man he is. He also must be, as are you, well read with a degree of historical knowledge.

What a voice though! So left of the mainstream.

jinksy said...

Listening to the song brought tears to my eyes - how daft was that?

Doctor FTSE said...

CJ Thank you. I twigged the connection to the poem from having read "The Alexandria Quartet" That amazing 4 level novel was dinner party conversation in the 60's the way house prices are today. Durrell got his revenge on critics and poets who didn't rate him by giving English poetry the accolade "The slow, sad cowbell of the English Muse" and critics "Arranging sprigs of parsley over a dead turbot" - which still bring me out in smiles.

Jinsky. Tears? Isn't that what some styles of music are made for?

Elizabeth said...

Beautiful. Along the same lines of translation and more than translation, how about "Take This Waltz", compared to "Pequeno Vals Vienes" by Federico Lorca on which it was based? I never understood the Lorca poem - Leonard Cohen did, and helped me to understand it too.