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Konstantinos Kavafis (1863-1933) - Constantine Cavafy



Greek poet, published only about 200 privately printed poems. Cavafy has come in recent years to be regarded as a the greatest Mediterranean poet of modern times.

He who longs to strengthen his spirit
must go beyond obedience and respect,
He will continue to honor some laws
but he will mostly violate
both law and custom.

(from 'Strengthening the Spirit', 1903)

Constantine P. Cavafy was born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (or Kabaphs) in Alexandria, Egypt, into a wealthy merchant family. Originally the family came from Constantinople, Turkey, where Cavafy lived from 1880 to 1885. His father, Peter John Cavafy, married the poet's mother Haricleia (1835-1899) in 1849. She was the daughter of a diamond merchant.

After his father's premature death in 1872, Cavafy was taken to Liverpool, England, for five years. Haricleia and her seven sons never recovered financially, but had to rely on the generosity of Peter John's brothers. The family's home was largely destroyed in July 1882, when the British bombarded Alexandria.

During his his stay in England Cavafy acquired a slight British inflection. Apart from the years in Istanbul (1882-85), he spent the rest of his life in Alexandria. "Whatever war-damage it's suffered, / however much smaller it's become, / it's still a wonderful city," Cavafy once wrote of his cosmopolitan home town – perhaps not without ironic attitude. Of the ancient Greek city nothing survived the conquering Arabs.

Alexandria's Arabic heritage did not affect noteworthy Cavafy's work, which essentially cherished the Greek world of Alexander the Great and his followers, the old, lost civilised world beyond which lived only "barbarians". "What is shocking about Cavafy's writing is the absence of Mediterranean or eastern imagery," said Marguerite Yourcenar. "He was cut off from the Arabic and Islamic world, and his eastern side is suspended." (The Atlas of Literature, edited by Malcolm Bradbury, 1996, p. 291)

In his famous poem, 'Waiting for the Barbarians', Cavafy commented the role which the arrival of the new rulers was supposedly to have: "And now what shall become of us without any barbarians? / Those people were some kind of solution." The deliberately flat ending parallels with T.S. Eliot's last words in 'The Hollow Men' (1925): "This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper."

When the family's prosperity declined, Cavafy worked 34 years intermittently as journalist, broker, and at the Irrigation Office of the Ministry of Public Works, from which he retired in 1922. Enjoying his family's respectable position in the lively society of Alexandria, Cavafy led an uneventful life. In the evenings he dined with his mother. Only trips to Athens, France, England, and Italy brought some changes in his routines.

In confessional notes Cavafy recorded his "solitary erotic passion" (apparently frequent masturbation), which caused him much guilt and distress: "I must, inflexibly, impose a limit on myself till 1 April, otherwise I shan't be able to travel. I shall fall ill and how am I to cross the sea, and if I'm ill!, how am I to enjoy my journey?" ('Introduction: The Poet-Historian' by Daniel Mendelsohn, in Collected Poems, 2009, p. xxiv). 

By 1911, Cavafy saw no need to struggle with his homosexual impulses any longer, writing in the poem 'Dangerous Thoughs:' "Strengthened by study and reflection / I won't fear my passions like a coward." (Conversing Identities: Encounters Between British, Irish and Greek Poetry, 1922-1952 by Konstantina Georganta, 2012, p. 41) Little is known about Cavafy's love life which he had to hide, but he had affairs and he visited most likely the bisexual brothels. For a period he had a room in a brothel on the Rue Mosquée Attarine. His first homosexual experience Cavafy probably had with a cousin, while living in Constantinople.

Even though Cavafy had been writing poems since his early teens, his first book was published when he was 41. It was reissued five years later with additional seven poems. Cavafy published no further works during his lifetime. At his apartment on Rue Lepsius he had a library, which contained about three hundred volumes of novels by unknown writers, with the exceptions of Marcel Proust and Georges Simenon.

Cavafy started his career under the influence of late-Victorian and Decadent European models, but then abandoned attempts to compose poetry in foreign tongues. As a writer Cavafy was perfectionist – he printed his poems by himself and delivered them only to close friends. The poems had sometimes handwritten corrections. Main themes were fate, the conflict between high ideals and reality, homosexual love, art, and politics. Among his confessional poems with homosexual theme is 'The Bandaged Shoulder', written in 1919, much admired by Lawrence Durrell. "When he left, I found, in front of his chair, / a bloody rag, part of the dressing, / a rag to be thrown straight into the garbage; / and I put it to my lips / and kept it there a long while – / the blood of love against my lips."

Fourteen of Cavafy's poems were published in a pamphlet in 1904. The edition was enlarged in 1910. Several dozens appeared subsequent years in a number of privately printed booklets and broadsheets. These editions contained mostly the same poems, first arranged thematically, and then chronologically. Close to one third of his poems were never printed in any form while he lived. 'One Night,' written 1907, was one of the erotic poems Cavafy wrote during the years in Alexandria, and referred to a passing sexual encounter, a memory of sensual pleasures:

And there on that common, humble bed,
I had love's body, hand those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips of such intoxication
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I'm drunk with passion again.

In book form Cavafy's poems were first published without dates before World War II and reprinted in 1949. Poiēmata (The Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy), edited by Rika Sengopoulou, appeared posthumously in 1935 in Alexandria. A lifelong smoker, Cavafy was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1932. Following a tracheotomy at the Red Cross Hospital in Athens, he lost his voice. Cavafy died on April 29, 1933, in Alexandria. Nowadays the cafés that the poet frequented on the Rue Misalla (now Safiya Zaghlul) have been largely replaced by shops.

Cavafy composed rhymed as well as free verse, but never loose, unstructured, or irregular poems. He used iambic, eleven-syllable measures, including the popular fifteen-syllable verse of the demotic tradition. After giving up experiments with different literary models, Cavafy mixed the demotic and pure Greek called katharevousa, and used his wide knowledge of the history of East Roman and Byzantine empires as the basis of his themes. Between 1893 and 1899 he made notes on Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire; the work had had a great impact on his imagination. In 'The God Abandon's Anthony' he utilized Shakespeare's play Anthony and Cleopatra and Plutarch's Life of Anthony to describe sense of loss through the fictive voice of an unknown person, who addresses Mark Anthony:

"As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as it right for you who were given this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen – your final delectation – to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing."

Like in Oscar Wilde, aestheticism and skepticism marked Cavafy's work. One of his central motifs was regret for old age: "You will not find other places, you will not find other seas. / The city will follow you. All roads you walk / will be these roads. And you will age in these same neighborhoods; and in these same houses you will go gray." ('The City,' in Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy, translated by Theoharis Constantine Theoharis, 2001) Past and present, East and West, Greek and 'barbarian' were fused into sophisticated commentaries on paganism, Christianity, and decadent modern world, but he did not write nostalgically of the remote past – the irony is that was real then, is no longer real now. Cavafy sketched a rich gallery of historical, semiobscure, or fictitious characters, whom he used as personae acting, or being discussed, in the episodes of his poems. Sometimes his style is dramatic, as in the 'Waiting for the Barbarians,' composed in 1898, and printed in 1904. The South-African writer J.M. Coetzee borrowed its title for his novel from 1980. Generally, Cavafy's tone is restrained, that of an impartial observer of history and human nature.

Cavafy's poems have been translated into English, French, Italian, and German, and several other languages, among other into Finnish. Despite judging him "the most anti-poetic (or a-poetic) poet," the 1963 Nobel laureate George Seferis was his ardent admirer. E.M. Forster, who met the poet during World War I, persuaded T.S. Eliot to publish several Cavafy's lyrics in The Criterion in 1924. Their corresponcence, The Forster-Cavafy Letters: Friends at a Slight Angle, appeared in 2009. 

A selection of Cavafy's poems was also published in Forster's Pharos and Pharillon (1923), but he never managed to bring out a volume of Cavafy's poetry in England – partly due to his friend's reluctance to promote his own work. However, Cavafy acknowledged that Forster had a good sense of his poetry. (Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy by Jane Lagoudis Pinchin, 1977, p. 109) In addition, Cavafy became known as the 'poet of the city' from the many references in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. The English novelist John Fowles once remarked that Cavafy is for him the great poet of the Levant. The threshold between popular culture and Cavafy's sophisticated poetry was crossed in 2017, when the poet was featured in the Corto Maltese comics titled Equatoria, written by  Juan Díaz Canales and drawn by Rubén Pellejero. In the story, Corto saves Cavafy by stopping two National party thugs from beating him up.

For further information: Pharos and Pharillon by E.M. Forster (1923); 'Constantine Cavafy and the Greek Past' by C.M. Bowra, in The Creative Experiment (1948); Constantine Cavafy by P. Brien (1964); Cavafy: A Biography by R. Liddell (1974); Cavafy's Alexandria: A Study of a Myth in Progress by E. Keeley (1976); Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy by J.L. Pinchin (1977); The Poetics of Cavafy by G. Jusdanis (1987); C. P. Cavafy by C. Robinson (1988); C.P. Cavafy by Christopher Rochelle (1990); Cavafy's Alexandria by Edmund Keeley (1995); Cavafy: A Biography by Robert Liddell (2002, with new introduction by Peter Mackridge); 'Introduction: The Poet-Historian' by Daniel Mendelsohn, in Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (2009); The Forster-Cavafy Letters: Friends at a Slight Angle, edited by Peter Jeffreys (2009); Unfinished & Uncollected: Finishing Cavafy's Unfinished Poems Followed by Uncollected Poems & Translations by George Economou (2015)

Selected works:

  • Poiēmata, 1935 (edited by Rika Sengopoulou; The Poems of C.P. Cavafy)
  • Poiēmata, 1948 (2nd ed.)
  • Poiēmata, 1963 (2 vols., edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Apanta, I, 1896-1918, 1963
  • Peza, 1963
  • Anekdota poiêmata 1882-1923, 1968 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Autografa poiêmata (1896–1910), 1968 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Epistoles ston Mario Vaiano, 1979
  • Anekdota poiēmata, 1882-1923, 1982
  • Anekdota sēmeiōmata poiētikēs kai ēthikēs (1902-1911), 1983 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Apokērygmena poiēmata kai metaphraseis (1886-1898), 1983 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Panomoiotypa tōn pente prēotōn phylladiōn tou (1891?-1904), 1983 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Anekdota sēmeiōmata poiētikēs kai ēthikēs (1902-1911), 1983 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Apokêrugmena poiêmata kai metafraseis (1886-1898), 1983 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Poiēmata, 1896-1933, 1983
  • Erōtika poiēmata, 1983 (phōtographies, Giōrgos Tourkovasilēs)
  • 26 apokērygmena poiēmata, 1984
  • Hapanta poiēmata, 1896-1933, 1984
  • Poiēmata, 1897-1933, 1984 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Ta 154 poiēmata, 1991
  • Ta poiêmata: nea ekdosê, 1991 (2 vols.)
  • Krymmena poiēmata: 1877?-1923 (edited by G.P. Savidis)
  • Atelê poiêmata 1918-1932, 1994 (edited by Renata Lavagnini)
  • Hapanta ta dēmosieumena poiēmata: kritika axiologēmena (mazi kai ta "arista" anekdota tou), 2002
  • Amores: erōtika poiēmata tou Kaphavē, Hellēnika kai Latinika, 2004
  • En tō mēni Athyr, 2013 
  • Perimenontas tous varvarous, 2013 (edited by Sōtērēs Lioukras)
  • "Ho theos na to kamei sketch": ho Kavaphēs kai hē polē: 18 eikastikes prosengiseis tēs poiētikēs poleodomias ston Kōnstantino Kavaphē, 2013 (edited by Giannēs Psychopaidēs; introduction by Antigonē Pogiatzē)
  • Ithakē, 2013 (Dōdeka monophylla; 1.; edited by Giōrgos Komnēnakēs)
  • Epestrephe; Gkriza, 2013 (Dōdeka monophylla; 2.; edited by Lena Athanasopoulou)
  • As phrontizan, 2013 (Dōdeka monophylla; 3.; edited by Nikolas Arvanitēs)
  • Sta 200 p.Ch., 2013 (Dōdeka monophylla; 4.; edited by Vangelēs Gkokas
  •  Apoleipein ho theos Antōnion, 2013 (Dōdeka monophylla; 5.; edited by Philippos Tsitsopoulos)
  • Myrēs; Alexandreia tou 340 m.Ch., 2013 (Dōdeka monophylla me poiēmata tou K.P. Kavaphē; 6.; edited by Giannēs Melanitēs)
  • To lexiko parathematōn, 2015 (edited by Michalēs Pierēs)
  • Ta poiēmata: dēmosieumena: anagnōrismena kai apokērygmena; adēmosieuta: holoklērōmena kai anoloklērōta, 2015 (edited by Dēmētrēs Dēmēroulēs)       
Translations into English:
  • Poems, 1952 (translated into English with a few notes by John Mavrogordato; with an introd. by Rex Warner)
  • The Complete Poems of C.P. Cavafy, 1961 (translated by Rae Dalven; with an introd. by W.H. Auden)
  • Passions and Ancient Days, 1971 (selected and translated by Edmund Keeley & George Savidis)
  • Selected Poems, 1972 (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
  • The Complete Poems of Cavafy: Expanded Edition, 1976 (intr. by W.H. Auden, translated by Rae Dalven)
  • The Greek Poems of C.P Cavafy, 1989 (2 vols., translated by Memas Kolaitis)
  • In Simple Clothes: Occasional Works, 1992
  • C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, 1992 (translated by Edmund Keeley, Philip Sherrard)
  • The Essential Cavafy, 1995 (selected and with an introduction by Edmund Keeley; translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; notes by George Savidis)
  • Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy, 2001 (foreword by Gore Vidal, translated by Theoharis Constantine Theoharis)
  • What These Ithakas Mean: Readings in Cavafy = Hē Ithakes ti semainoun: anagnōseis ston Kavaphē, 2002 (editors, Artemis Leontis, Lauren E. Talalay, and Keith Taylor)
  • The Collected poems of C.P. Cavafy: A New Translation, 2006 (translated by Aliki Barnstone)
  • The Canon: The Original One Hundred and Fifty-Four Poems, 2007 (2nd ed., translated by Stratis Haviaras; edited by Dana Bonstrom; foreword by Seamus Heaney; introduction by Manuel Savidis)
  • The Collected Poems, 2007 (translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou; with an introduction by Peter Mackridge) 
  • Cavafy: 166 Poems, 2008 (translated with an introduction by Alan L. Boegehold)
  • Collected Poems, 2009 (translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)
  • Selected Prose Works, 2010 (translated and annotated by Peter Jeffreys)
  • Poems: the Canon, 2011 (edited by Demetrios Yatromanolakis; translated by John Chioles)
  • Complete Plus: the Poems of C.P. Cavafy in English, 2013 (translated by George Economou with Stavros Deligiorgis)
  • Clearing the Ground: C.P. Cavafy, Poetry and Prose, 1902-1911, 2015 (edited, translated, and with an essay by Martin McKinsey)
  • Runoja, 1984 (suom. Aapo Junkola; esipuheen kirj. ja käännöksen tark. Jussi Korhonen)
  • Deka ellēnes pointes = Kymmenen kreikkalaista runoilijaa / K. P. Kabafēs, et al., 1996 (suom. Martti Leiwo, et al., toimittaneet María Martzūkū, Petra Pakkanen, Martti Leiwo)
  • Barbaarit tulevat tänään, 2005 (suomentanut Tuomas Anhava; johdanto: C. M. Bowra)

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