C.P. Cavafy: The Horses of Achilles – A New Translation by Kathleen Vail

Automedon with the Horses of Achilles, Henri Regnault, 1868

Stepping into a legendary scene unfolding in Homer’s Iliad, C. P. Cavafy sheds new light on the angst that drives the horses of Achilles to tears upon the epic death of Patroklos in the Trojan War.

In his poem, The Horses of Achilles, Cavafy intentionally focuses attention on the mournful tears of Achilles’ horses, Balios and Xanthos, rather than on the heroic death of Achilles’ beloved friend, Patroklos. Revealing to us a deeper glimpse of death, Cavafy inspires a profoundly heightened perception of the sublime divide between the mortal and the divine.

Although I have carefully tried to honor the essence of Cavafy’s phrases and the pattern of his rhymes, I admit my translation clings a tad passionately to his signature spartan frame. Even to time-honored dishes, however, a chef worth her salt will add her own special flavor, her own magic spice. In so doing, I hope I have convincingly conveyed both Cavafy’s singular essence and my own celebration of his style.

The Horses of Achilles
C. P. Cavafy
(Translation by Kathleen Vail)

When they saw him laid low, Patroklos,
who was so young for one so famed for valiant deeds,
they began to cry, Achilles’ steeds,
with their immortal nature contradicting
the specter of Death that they were witnessing.
With raging heads shaking and shining manes streaming
and hooves pounding loudly, they were grieving
Patroklos who lay there silently – annihilated –
a flesh forsaken – a spirit desolated –
sucked dry and stripped naked by the hand of strife –
translated to the silent Void from vivacious life.

Zeus of the Eternals saw the tears
of the horses and sadly said, “At Peleus’ wedding
I should not foolishly have done this thing.” He, regretting,
added, “It was better had we not given him my steeds.
Unhappy horses! Why are you trapped there in the hapless deeds
of wretched folk on fields where games of fate are played.
You whom neither death nor old age plagues
are tyrannized by temporary pains. To transient strife and stress
your people have you chained.” But hot tears nevertheless
for the permanently dead
the two noble animals achingly shed.

Battle for the body of Patroklos. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“The Greeks and the Trojans Fighting over the Body of Patroclus” by Antoine Wiertz, 19th Century. Source: [CC0] Musée des beaux-arts de Liège/Vail via Wikimedia Commons [CC0]

Fighting Over the Body of Patroklos
Homer’s Iliad, 17:366-373
(Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D.)

So fought they like unto blazing fire,
nor wouldst thou have deemed that sun or moon yet abode,
for with darkness were they shrouded in the fight,
all the chieftains that stood around the slain son of Menoetius.
[370] But the rest of the Trojans and the well-greaved Achaeans
fought at their ease under clear air,
and over them was spread the piercing brightness of the sun,
and on all the earth and the mountains was no cloud seen.

The Death of Patroklos in Homer’s Iliad

The following is A.T. Murray’s translation of Homer’s tale of the battle in which Hektor slays Patroklos. These are the passages that inspired Cavafy’s muse to linger on the dreadful tears of Achilles’ horses. Prompted to share his exquisite vision in a poem, Cavafy’s words are now, like Xanthos and Balios, yoked for all eternity to the glorious world of Homer’s timeless heroes.

The Tears of Achilles’ Horses
Homer’s Iliad, 17:424-455
(Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D.)

Thus would one speak and arouse the might of each. So they fought on,
[425] and the iron din went up through the unresting air to the brazen heaven.
But the horses of the son of Aeacus being apart from the battle were weeping,
since first they learned that their charioteer had fallen in the dust
beneath the hands of man-slaying Hector.

In sooth Automedon, valiant son of Diores,
[430] full often plied them with blows of the swift lash,
and full often with gentle words bespake them, and oft with threatenings;
yet neither back to the ships to the broad Hellespont were the twain minded to go,
not yet into the battle amid the Achaeans.

Nay, as a pillar abideth firm that standeth on the tomb
[435] of a dead man or woman, even so abode they immovably with the beauteous car,
bowing their heads down to the earth.
And hot tears ever flowed from their eyes to the ground,
as they wept in longing for their charioteer, and their rich manes were befouled,
[440] streaming from beneath the yoke-pad beside the yoke on this side and on that.

And as they mourned, the son of Cronos had sight of them and was touched with pity,
and he shook his head, and thus spake unto his own heart:
“Ah unhappy pair, wherefore gave we you to king Peleus, to a mortal,
while ye are ageless and immortal?
[445] Was it that among wretched men ye too should have sorrows?
For in sooth there is naught, I ween, more miserable than man
among all things that breathe and move upon earth.

Yet verily not upon you and your car, richly-dight,
[450] shall Hector, Priam’s son, mount; that will I not suffer.
Sufficeth it not that he hath the armour and therewithal vaunteth him vainly?
Nay, in your knees and in your heart will I put strength,
to the end that ye may also bear Automedon safe out of the war to the hollow ships”

Automedon with the horses of Achilles. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“Automedon With the Horses of Achilles” by Henri Regnault, ca. 1868. Source: [CC0] Museum of Fine Arts, Boston via Wikimedia Commons

In His Own Words – The Horses of Achilles by C.P. Cavafy

In an article for Poetry Foundation, Alicia (A.E.) Stallings writes, “Cavafy is without doubt the most translated and retranslated of modern Greek poets–perhaps among the most translated of foreign poets into English period.” She goes on to ask, “What are these translations not bringing to the table? What are we missing when we aren’t reading Cavafy in Greek?”

I offer here an opportunity to consider the substantial challenge of translating Cavafy’s signature style–his “flatness–not in terms of music, in which Cavafy’s poetry is quite rich, but in terms of tone,” as Stallings puts it. Because most translators of Cavafy’s poems rarely attempt to reproduce Cavafy’s “music,” Stallings notes, regarding his poem The City (link in Greek), “I was surprised to find the poem rhymes, and not only does it rhyme, but it has a curious rhyme scheme:”


Stallings continues, “Some of the rhymes are actually denser than full rhyme–they are rime riche, homophones–so that ‘tha menei’ (‘shall remain’) almost magically turns into ‘thameni’ (‘buried’); some are more like full consonantal rhymes- ‘tha gurnas’ (‘you will wander’) turns into ‘tha gernas’ (‘you will grow old’).”

“The rhyme scheme that appears to go somewhere only to end up where it started,” states Stallings, “is not decoration–it is central to the theme of the poem.”

You will note that, somewhat similar to The City, Cavafy’s The Horses of Achilles has an interesting rhyme scheme, too:


Try as I might, I failed to repeat A in lines 8 and 9 in my translation, above.

The following is C.P. Cavafy’s poem, The Horses of Achilles, written in his native Greek. What do you think–would you like to have a go at translating it?

For the benefit of those who don’t read Greek, I’ve included below each line in the poem a line transliterated to phonetics in Roman characters (with the accented vowels in bold to help identify Cavafy’s rhyme pattern), as well as the following line translated literally, word for word.

Τα άλογα του Αχιλλέως
Constantine P. Cavafy

Τον Πάτροκλο σαν είδαν σκοτωμένο,
Ton Patroklo san eedhan skotomeno,
The Patroklos as they saw killed,

που ήταν τόσο ανδρείος, και δυνατός, και νέος,
poo eetan toso andreeos, kay dheenatos, kay nayos,
who was so valiant/brave, and strong, and young,

άρχισαν τ’ άλογα να κλαίνε του Αχιλλέως·
arxheesan t’ aloga na klaynay too Axheellayos;
They began the horses to cry of Achilles;

η φύσις των η αθάνατη αγανακτούσε
ee feesees ton ee athanatee aganaktoosay
the nature of the immortal he complained

για του θανάτου αυτό το έργον που θωρούσε.
yia too thanatoo afto to ergon poo thoroosay.
for the death this the work/deed that he observed.

Τίναζαν τα κεφάλια των και τες μακρυές χαίτες κουνούσαν,
Teenazan ta kefalia ton kay tes makreees xhaytes koonoosan,
They were shaking the heads theirs and their long manes were waving,

την γη χτυπούσαν με τα πόδια, και θρηνούσαν
teen yee xhteepoosan may ta podia, kay threenoosan
the earth they banged with the feet, and they mourned

τον Πάτροκλο που ενοιώθανε άψυχο – αφανισμένο –
ton Patroklo poo eneeothanay apseexho – afaneesmeno –
the Patroklos who appeared/seemed inanimate – destroyed –

μιά σάρκα τώρα ποταπή – το πνεύμα του χαμένο –
meea sarka tora potapee – to pnevma too xhameno –
a flesh now despaired/dejected – the spirit his lost –

ανυπεράσπιστο – χωρίς πνοή –
aneeperaspeesto – xhorees pnoee
defenseless – without breath –

εις το μεγάλο Τίποτε επιστραμένο απ’ την ζωή.
ees to megalo Teepotay epeestrameno ap’ teen zoee.
to the great Nothing returned from the life.

Τα δάκρυα είδε ο Ζεύς των αθανάτων
Ta dhakreea eedhay o Zefs ton athanaton
The tears he saw the Zeus of the immortals

αλόγων και λυπήθη. «Στου Πηλέως τον γάμο»
alogon kay leepeethee. “Stoo Peelayos ton gamo”
of the horses and was sad. “At the Peleus the wedding”

είπε «δεν έπρεπ’ έτσι άσκεπτα να κάμω·
eepay “dhen eprep’ etsee askepta na kamo;
he said “not must thus foolishly to I do;

καλύτερα να μην σας δίναμε άλογά μου
kaleetera na meen sas dheenamay aloga moo
better to not you we gave horses mine

δυστυχισμένα! Τι γυρεύατ’ εκεί χάμου
dheesteexheesmena! Tee yeerevat’ ekee xhamoo
Unhappy! What are you doing/looking for there

στην άθλια ανθρωπότητα πούναι το παίγνιον της μοίρας.
steen athleea anthropoteeta poonay to paygneeon tees meeras.
in the wretched humanity where is the playing of fate.

Σεις που ουδέ ο θάνατος φυλάγει, ουδέ το γήρας
Sees poo ooday o thanatos feelayee, ouday to yeeras
You whom neither the death is within, neither the old age

πρόσκαιρες συμφορές σας τυραννούν. Στα βάσανά των
proskayres seemfores sas teerannoon. Sta vasana ton
temporary disasters you they tyrannize. In the sufferings theirs

σας έμπλεξαν οι άνθρωποι». -Όμως τα δάκρυά των
sas ebleksan ee anthropee”. -Omos ta dhakreea ton
you they involved the people.” However the tears theirs

για του θανάτου την παντοτεινή
yia too thanatoo teen pandoteenee
for the death the everlasting

την συμφοράν εχύνανε τα δυό τα ζώα τα ευγενή.
teen seemforan exheenanay ta dheeo ta zoa ta evyenee.
the tortured they shed the two the animals the noble.

Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis [29 April 1863 – 29 April 1933]

Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (29 April 1863 – 29 April 1933), popularly known in English as C. P. Cavafy, was an Egyptian Greek poet born on April 29, 1863, in Alexandria, Egypt.

C. P. Cavafy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Constantine P. Cavafy, ca. 1900. Source: [CC0] Wikimedia Commons

Adamantly refusing to formally publish his work during his lifetime, Cavafy wrote a body of 154 complete poems in his native Greek. Dozens more of his poems remain incomplete. Most of Cavafy’s poems were written after reaching age 40, shared only in local newspapers and magazines, or distributed among friends and interested acquaintances.

Sadly, passing away from cancer of the larynx on his 70th birthday in 1933, Cavafy did not live to see his reputation grow to its current height. The first publication of Cavafy’s poems in book form was titled, Ποιήματα (Peeeemata, “Poems”), published in 1935 in Alexandria, Egypt, two years after his death.

Much of Cavafy’s work was perhaps better suited to the randy symposiums of Classical Greece or today’s more liberal audiences, who can openly engage with homosexual literature and art.  In his own time, however, sexuality and gender issues were not yet crossing the thresholds of mainstream publishing houses.

Today, C. P. Cavafy’s poems are treasured and beloved for his perceptive historicity, engaging honesty, poignant eroticism, and singularly sparse, consciously individualistic style. His works, now published in multiple languages, enjoy international distribution and acclaim, and Cavafy’s poetry is currently taught in schools and universities around the world.


The Death of Patroklos. Source: Wikimedia Commons

“The Death of Patroclus,” Illustration from page 265 of the Iliad of Homer translated by Pope (1715). Colorized by Kathleen Vail. Source: [CC0] Wikimedia Commons



[This article originally appeared on OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters]





19 thoughts on “C.P. Cavafy: The Horses of Achilles – A New Translation by Kathleen Vail

  1. Not too good lately Kathleen .seems to be a bad year for me. Have had a couple of falls, one down the stairs at home and a couple of months ago while walking our dog I tripped over fell and landed on the left side of my face, hence bad bruising and a cut over my eye which closed completely. Not a pretty site. However, the bruises have almost gone now. As for the summer would be wonderful if it wasn’t so hot. But I gather that most countries are having extreme changes in the weather. Hope all is well with you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ooh – that sounds scary, falling like that, Rita. I just picked up a great pair of inline skates at a thrift shop and was looking forward to trying them out in the nearby park. Then a few days ago, I fell for no apparent reason while standing at the sink and knocked my head sideways for two days. Felt like being drunk, hungover, and having the flu all at the same time – pretty crazy! Now I’m not so excited about skating but I’m still looking forward to carrying them with me to Egypt and skating on our roof (with a helmet lol). I’ve been hearing about the extreme heat in the Med – it’s time to kick back in the shade of your garden, pour an icy drink, and plug in the electric fan to create a breeze across your table!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh dear me, so we have both been in the wars of late then. If you knocked your head Kathleen you should have had a scan because of concussion. I had to wait at the hospital for 4 hours for them to check what was going to develop, such as concussion. I don’t think it has affected us though do you ? because we are still busy blogging and studying. Good luck with your skating but take care. PS. Even the breeze is hot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • lol, need a spray bottle with iced mint water to mist yourself with the fan on? I probably did get a concussion, but I’m in Canada now with no medical coverage… have to go to the states for that, so I just hung out on the couch and marathoned my saved episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation… much better than a scan, eh? I think as you said, we must be fine, still kicking and loving life! ;^)

      Liked by 1 person

      • It will be great,my dear Kathleen.His writing possesses classical quality although he was influenced by romanticism too.He believed that man,in the universe,is a channel of Light,an energy transformer for himself and the others.He was the most important modern Greek poet.

        Liked by 1 person

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