Constantine Cavafy

Karen Emmerich (Princeton University)
Download PDF Add to Bookshelf Report an Error

Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy (1863 – 1933), who lived most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt, is arguably the most influential Greek-language poet of his day. His work—which focuses on the margins of empires and societies—is shaped by his own experience as a homosexual poet of the diaspora who stood, in E. M. Forster’s words, “at a slight angle to the universe” (Forster 1983, 13), living and working far from Athens, the literary center of the Greek-speaking world. Cavafy has since become a towering figure in Greek letters, while several English-language translations of his work have influenced writers as far-ranging as Forster, Lawrence Durrell, Joseph Brodsky, W. H. Auden, Mark Doty, and J. M. Coetzee. Though criticism dealing with the queer slant and homosexual content of his poems has only recently gained traction in Greece, his work has been particularly important for the gay artistic community in the United States.

Cavafy was born in Alexandria on April 29, 1863, to Harikleia Photiades and Petros Ioannou Cavafy; he was the last of nine children, of whom seven sons survived. Both of his parents belonged to prominent Phanariot families in Constantinople. Petros, a cotton merchant who had obtained British citizenship after several years building up a firm in England with his elder brother, met and married his wife during an extended trip home in 1849. A year later he moved her and their first-born son to London; then, in 1853, he brought his business and his growing family to Alexandria, where he became a leading member of the Greek community. When he died in 1870, however, he left his wife and children in financial straits, and in 1872 they were obliged to leave for what proved to be a seven-year stay in Liverpool and London. There the adolescent Cavafy perfected his English, a language he often used in correspondence and diaries for the rest of his life. He was sixteen when the family returned to Alexandria—but just three years later, in 1882, shortly before the British bombardment of the city, rising political tensions led Harikleia and her younger sons to take refuge in her father’s house in Constantinople. It was in that city that Cavafy composed some of his earliest poems and translations, in English, French, and the formal, archaizing katharevousa Greek; some suggest that the young poet had his first homosexual experiences during this period.

In October 1885 Harikleia and her sons returned to Alexandria. That same month, Egypt became a joint protectorate of Britain and the Ottoman Empire, and Cavafy renounced his British citizenship; as a Greek citizen, he was thereafter prohibited from holding a permanent position in the public sector. In 1889 he began working as an unpaid clerk in the Third Circle of Irrigation at the Ministry of Public Works; a few years later he assumed a salaried but temporary position, which he held for over three decades only through annual contract renewals. After his second return to Alexandria Cavafy rarely left Egypt, traveling to Paris and London in 1897 and to Athens in 1901 and 1903. He lived with his mother and two of his brothers, Paul and John (a poet who wrote in English, and later translated many of Cavafy’s poems), until Harikleia’s death in 1899. John left the city in 1904, and in 1907 Cavafy and Paul moved to the famous apartment on rue Lepsius—in the middle of a run-down district, directly above a brothel—where the poet would remain until his death; after 1908 Cavafy lived there alone, writing and entertaining visitors as distinguished as Forster (1918) and Filippo Marinetti (1930).

Cavafy’s first published poem appeared in a Leipzig periodical in 1886. From 1891 until the end of his life he published fairly frequently in newspapers and literary journals in Alexandria, Athens, Cairo, Nicosia, and other major cities in Europe and North America; in the late 1920s a number of early poems were reprinted in the journal Alexandrini Tehni (Alexandrian art), edited by Rika and Alekos Sengopoulos, the poet’s close associate and future heir, who some believe to have been the illegitimate child of one of the Cavafy brothers (Savidis 2004, ix). Yet during Cavafy’s lifetime no collection of his poems was ever commercially released, though proposals are rumored to have been made by editors in Athens and London. Instead, from 1912 on he privately circulated over 2,200 booklets and sheaves of poems—drawn from a total pool of 138 poems—which he collated in a makeshift bookbindery in his home and distributed among friends and acquaintances (see the distribution lists Cavafy kept, transcribed in Savidis 1991, 215-283). Despite the restrictions he placed on the dissemination of his work, Cavafy did make a name for himself in Alexandria and Athens during his lifetime; his work and life were the subject of commentary and gossip, and in 1926 he was awarded the Order of the Phoenix by General Theodoros Pangalos, then dictator of Greece.

In 1932 Cavafy made one last trip to Athens, in the company of the Sengopouloses, for treatment of what proved to be cancer of the throat. He stayed for four months and met many literary figures of the day, though a tracheotomy reduced him to communicating only in writing. He returned to Alexandria and died a few months later, on his seventieth birthday, leaving behind an extensive archive of photographs, family documents, prose texts, diary entries written in English shorthand, and notes and other papers, including over 100 previously unseen poems and drafts.

Writings

Readers of Cavafy are often struck by the small size of his body of work: we have fewer than 300 poems in varying stages of completion, more than half of which were never circulated during his lifetime. Cavafy was a careful writer whose career demonstrates a deliberate cultivation of self and subject; many, including Nobel Laureate George Seferis, argue that his work only came into its own when its creator was in his forties (see Seferis 1999, 324). His earliest poems, written in the 1880s, were characterized by a Phanariot romanticism, stiff and formal in style, with derivative themes and phrasing. In the 1890s the influence of the Parnassian and Symbolist schools predominated; some of his most popular poems date to this period, including “Candles”, “Walls”, “The First Step”, “Thermopylae” and “Waiting for the Barbarians”. Around 1902, Cavafy reportedly subjected his existing work to a thorough “philosophical scrutiny” saving only the “intense and serious” (see Cavafy’s prose note, in English, “Philosophical Scrutiny”, published in Cavafy 2003, 256-260). His mature poems, composed or revised after this date, are deeply learned, with references to Homer, Dante, Plutarch, Herodotus, and others, and demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the history of the post-Classical Greek world, from the Hellenistic to the Byzantine periods. They also exhibit a fascination with a number of recurring themes: illicit love, the rise and fall of empires and rulers, life at the fringes of history and society. Many scholars divide the poems into three groups, the “philosophical”, the “historical”, and the “erotic” or “sensual”, categories first mentioned in a series of anonymous notes (which some suggest were written by Cavafy, despite protestations to the contrary within the texts themselves; see, for instance, Hirst 1995, 37-38) published in Alexandrian Art in the late 1920s (the first of these notes appears in the May 6, 1927 issue of the journal). Certainly the more straightforwardly philosophical or didactic poems are concentrated toward the earlier part of Cavafy’s post-scrutiny production, and his historical consciousness as a writer seems to have emerged gradually after his methodical reading of historians Edward Gibbon and Constantine Paparrigopoulos in the mid-1890s. But other scholars (see, for instance, Mendelsohn’s introduction to his 2009 translation of Cavafy’s Collected Poems) argue convincingly that these three groups or categories are not entirely separable: all three take part in Cavafy’s overarching poetics of the lost and found, which pervades not only his poems of remembered love but also those involving the recovery of neglected eras, historical figures, or effaced texts.

By virtue of his location, Cavafy stood somewhat apart from the intense debate taking place in Athenian intellectual circles concerning the proper language to use in formal settings, and in literature: some favored the “purified”, archaizing katharevousa, and others supported the use of everyday demotic. Cavafy’s poetry is notoriously idiosyncratic in its use of Greek, with frequent quotations from classical Greek, including a number of epigraphs from Plutarch, and written in a mixture of katharevousa and demotic, inflected both by his identity as a Greek-speaking Alexandrian and by his excellent knowledge of English and French. Language use is also an important theme in his work: a young Coptic poet is praised for writing beautifully in the “foreign tongue” of Greek in “For Ammon, Who Died at 29 Years of Age, in 610”, while the “Potentate from Western Libya” is ashamed to speak his barbarous Greek on a visit to Hellenistic Alexandria. These two examples illustrate another major aspect of Cavafy’s work: his preoccupation with people and places on the margins—either geographical or temporal—of empires and societies. Rather than revel in the glories of the Archaic or Classical Greek past, Cavafy concerns himself with the long stretch of time from the Hellenistic monarchies to the fall of Byzantium. His poems, rich in historical irony, often focus on minor characters, fictive or actual, living in border regions or at moments of transition: even “The God Abandons Antony”, with its telling title, focuses not on Mark Antony’s reign but on the moment just before the ruler is forsaken by Dionysus, his protecting god.

Just as Cavafy’s historical imagination gravitates toward patterns of inevitable decline, with glory savored at the very moment it is being lost, so too do many of the erotic poems set in contemporary Alexandria—such as “One Night”, “Come Back”, and “The 25th Year of His Life”—focus on lost love and remembered encounters, rather than ones experienced in the present moment. Many have also noted Cavafy’s preference for interior spaces over the out-of-doors, and for the created aesthetic object over the natural one, as in “Morning Sea” and the unpublished poems “Artificial Flowers” and “House with Garden”. A number of his poems speak of sculptors, painters, poets, and craftsmen, whose regard for the aesthetic qualities of their work echoes Cavafy’s commitment to his own craftsmanship both as a poet and as an amateur bookbinder: the jeweler in “For the Shop”, for instance, hoards his best pieces in a way that resembles Cavafy’s hoarding of poems in his home workshop (a practice described at greater length below).

Cavafy’s poetry is often characterized—particularly by those who encounter the poems in translation—as unadorned, even prosaic; W. H. Auden famously praised the simplicity of the poet’s “unique tone of voice”, which is “immediately recognizable” even in translation (1961, viii). Yet for readers able to encounter it in Greek, Cavafy’s poetry, while bare of metaphors, similes, and conventional imagery, is rich in what Roman Jakobson and Peter Colaclides described as “grammatical imagery” (1966, 59) creating grammatical and syntactical structures that reflect, and reflect on, the themes and content of particular poems. Cavafy’s primarily iambic poetry is also thick with enjambment, while several of his earlier poems, such as “Walls” and “For the Shop”, use homophonic rhyme (i.e. rhymes composed of pairs of homophones)—further techniques that serve to highlight the poem’s status as a written text, as does the gap down the middle of a handful of his poems, including “In Despair” and “In the Month of Athyr”, which makes visual these poems’ thematic concerns with separation and loss.

Publishing Methods and Posthumous Editions

Cavafy’s idiosyncratic methods of collecting and sharing his work present a number of challenges to the editor and translator alike. G. P. Savidis’s 1966 Cavafy’s Editions, the most thorough discussion of Cavafy’s publication methods, divides Cavafy’s career as self-publisher into three phases (Savidis 1991). Cavafy’s earliest “editions” are the five leaflets, each presenting one or two poems, which he had privately printed in runs of about 50 between 1891 and 1904; so many copies were found among his papers after his death that it is unlikely they were ever systematically circulated. These leaflets were followed by two volumes, both titled simply Poems; they were printed at the poet’s expense in 1904 and 1910, in 100 and 200 copies, respectively, about three quarters of which Cavafy circulated. Since the 1910 volume contains all 14 of the poems from the 1904 volume, along with seven more, the latter volume is often considered a revised or expanded version of the earlier one. Cavafy then went on to develop a laborious system of publication that in some sense fused the leaflet with the bound book: from 1912 until his death, Cavafy created makeshift collections of individually printed poems which he collated and distributed either in person or through a tight network of friends and acquaintances, both in Alexandria and abroad. Savidis divides these collections into ten “editions.” The ordering of the poems in five of these is chronological, according to the date of their initial periodical publication; the other five are ordered in a non-chronological manner, according to a criterion Savidis calls “thematic”.

Yet other challenges are presented by the existence of unpublished, and in some cases unfinished, materials found among the papers Cavafy left behind. This archive initially passed into the possession of Sengopoulos, whose wife Rika soon published the first commercial edition of Cavafy’s work, the lavish 1935 volume that was the first to include all of the 154 poems that have since come to be known as the Cavafy “canon” (Cavafy 1935): the 138 poems included in Cavafy’s handmade collections; fourteen additional poems from his 1904 and 1910 volumes, or from Alexandrian Art; and a final poem still in manuscript but assumed to be ready for printing. In the early 1960s the archive was shown to the young scholar G. P. Savidis, who in 1963 published a two-volume “revised” edition of these 154 “acknowledged” poems that has become a touchstone for readers, critics, and translators of Cavafy’s work (Cavafy 1963). In later years Savidis produced numerous other editions based on the contents of the archive, including approximately 80 “unpublished” or “hidden” poems (Cavafy 1968) discovered in relatively finished form, as well as 27 (Cavafy 1983) that appeared in periodicals during Cavafy’s lifetime but were subsequently “repudiated” (i.e. never included in his collections). Renata Lavagnini’s scholarly edition of the “unfinished” poems (Cavafy 1994) presents another thirty-four works most scholars assume to have been intended for eventual distribution, had Cavafy lived to finish them. In 2003 Michalis Pieris released an edition of the published and unpublished prose (Cavafy 2003); an edition of the shorthand diaries is underway.

The taxonomy implicit in the way these editions divide Cavafy’s oeuvre has both influenced and been reinforced by a critical tradition that necessarily takes these editions as its starting point. It is not, however, uncontested; indeed, presentation of the poems remains a challenge to scholars, editors, and translators alike. Meanwhile, the ongoing development of the Cavafy Archive website (www.cavafy.com), both in Greek and English, seeks to facilitate encounters with digital versions of manuscripts, transcriptions, translations, and secondary literature on Cavafy and his work.

References

Auden, W. H. 1976. “Introduction.” The Complete Complete Poems of Cavafy. Trans. Rae Dalven. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Cavafy, C. P. 1935. Poiimata [Poems]. Ed. Rika Sengopoulou. Alexandria: n.p.
Cavafy, C. P. 1963. Poiimata, Α (1896-1918) [Poems, vol. 1 (1896-1918)] and Β (1919-1933) [vol. 2 (1919-1933)]. Ed. G. P. Savidis. Athens: Ikaros.
Cavafy, C. P. 1968. Anekdota Poiimata (1882-1923) [Unpublished poems (1882-1923)]. Ed. G. P. Savidis. Athens: Ikaros.
Cavafy, C. P. 1983. Ta Apokyrigmena Poiimata kai Metafraseis [The repudiated poems and translations]. Ed. G. P. Savidis. Athens: Ikaros.
Cavafy, C. P. 1994. Ateli poiimata [Unfinished poems]. Ed. Renata Lavagnini. Athens: Ikaros.
Cavafy, C. P. 2003. Ta peza (1882;-1931) [Prose (1882?-1931)]. Ed. Michalis Pieris. Athens: Ikaros.
Forster, E. M. 1983. “The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy.” The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy. Athens: Harvey. 13-18.
Hirst, Anthony. 1995. “Philosophical, historical and sensual: an examination of Cavafy’s thematic collections.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies. 19: 33-93.
Jakobson, Roman and Peter Colaclides. 1966. “Grammatical Imagery in Cavafy's Poem ‘Thimisou, Soma...’” Linguistics. 20: 51-59.
Mendelsohn, Daniel. 2009. “Introduction: The Poet-Historian.” C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Trans. Daniel Mendelsohn. New York: Knopf. xv-lx.
Savidis, Manuel. 2004 “Introduction.” The Canon: The Original One Hundred and Fifty-Four Poems. Trans. Stratis Haviaras. Athens: Hermes Publishing, 2004.
Savidis, G. P. 1991. I Kavafikes ekdoseis (1891-1931), perigrafi kai sholio [Cavafy’s editions (1891-1931): description and commentary]. Athens: Ikaros. [First published 1966.]
Seferis, George. 1999. “K. P. Kavafis, T. S. Eliot: Paralliloi” (C. P. Cavafy, T. S. Eliot: Parallels). In Dokimes (Essays), vol. 1. Athens: Ikaros.

2738 words

Citation: Emmerich, Karen. "Constantine Cavafy". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 04 January 2011 [https://www.litencyc.com/php/speople.php?rec=true&UID=795, accessed 27 February 2024.]

795 Constantine Cavafy 1 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

Save this article

If you need to create a new bookshelf to save this article in, please make sure that you are logged in, then go to your 'Account' here

Leave Feedback

The Literary Encyclopedia is a living community of scholars. We welcome comments which will help us improve.