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Edmund Keeley, Princeton U. Professor and a Giant of Greek Poetry Translation, Is Mourned

PRINCETON, NJ – Poet, translator, novelist and essayist, Edmund Keeley passed away on Feb. 23 at the age of 94. He was one of the giants of Greek Poetry translation to English who exposed so many to C.P. Kavafy and Nobel laureates George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis for the first time.

Edmund Keeley was born in Damascus, Syria on February 5, 1928. The son of the American diplomat James Hugh Keeley, Jr, he spent his childhood in Canada, Greece, and Washington, DC.

According to the Princeton University website “the road from Edmund Keeley’s birthplace to Damascus to a distinguished academic career at Princeton has been a wandering one; it has taken him to schools in Montreal, Thessaloniki, and Washington, D.C. before bringing him to Princeton as an undergraduate in 1945. Then he wandered again – into the Navy-before coming back to receive his B.A. in 1949. He departed once more in 1952 for a D.Phil. at Oxford, followed by a year of teaching at Brown University and a Fulbright Lectureship at Thessaloniki University before finally settling at Princeton.

The product of those wandering years has been the nurturing of a colleague and many talents and interests. At Princeton, Professor Keeley taught in the English department, directed the Creative Writing Program, and virtually created the Hellenic Studies Program, while at the same time creating a reputation for himself as a novelist and translator of modern Greek poetry. His fiction won the Rome prize of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the NEA/PEN Fiction Award, and his translations of Seferis, Cavafy, and Ritsos have earned him deserved praise and honors, including the Columbia Translation Center Award, the Landon Award of the Academy of American Poets, and the Premier Prix Europeen de traduction de law Poesie.

In the larger world of American letters, Professor Keeley has been an important member of many organizations, including the Modern Greek Studies Association, of which he was its first president, and the Society of America, of which he was vice president. He has served on the editorial boards of Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Translation Review, and The Journal of Modern Greek Studies. For fifteen years he was active in the PEN American Center and served as its president from 1991 to 1993. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science. He retires as the first holder of the Charles Barnwell Straut Class of 1923 Professorship in English”.

Mourning the passing of Edmund Keeley, the Hudson Review, shared on Feb.23 on their website the last three poems he published with them (“Pelion” in Winter 2020, “Daylight” in Summer 2021 and “The Day Comes” in Winter 2022), which he intended as a trilogy.

“The Day Comes” was the last one:

“The Day Comes”

by Edmund Keeley

The day comes, it seems, when
The mystery of our coming and our going
That has hovered over these late years
Begins to fade into one or another
Unsettled cliché about man and the gods
Or man on his own trying to fathom
What man or woman can never
Be wise enough to understand
With more than human certainty,
Whether their bland beginning
Or their opaque end, let alone
The generous space in between.
The godly say solace is there
Variously, comforting, perhaps obscure,
But the surest route for those of us
With little more than our dying hope
That mystery has its limitations
Is to gather the best from what remains
Unsentimental but felt, manifest,
To weave through the life we’ve known
With the right memory for interference
And find those images worth reliving:
A difficult father finally holding
One of his infant sons sky-high,
As though a golf trophy,
A bridge expert gourmet mother
Stepping back from her hot stove
To let her narcissistic daughter
Demonstrate how a grandmother sucks eggs,
And those images that go beyond wit
Or need for some saving irony
As honest first love in its failure
Almost lost to another more haunting
And yes, another, so surely there’s no
Consolation when the day finally comes,
Just the pain and gratitude.