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(1863-1933) - Constantine
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.
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.
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."
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
(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
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,
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,
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.