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Cavafy, C P

Category: Poet

Constantine P. Cavafy (April 1863 – April 29, 1933) was a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria and worked as a journalist and civil servant.

He published 154 poems; dozens more remained incomplete or in sketch form. His most important poetry was written after his fortieth birthday.  His poems were written in Greek, which means that they lose a little in translation, but as long as the translation is sound, one can still appreciate them for their skill and content.  Cavafy was instrumental in the revival and recognition of Greek poetry both at home and abroad. His poems are typically about “uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality, and a fatalistic existential nostalgia.  His mature style was a free iambic form, free in the sense that verses rarely rhyme and are usually from 10 to 17 syllables. In his poems, the presence of rhyme usually implies irony.

Cavafy drew his themes from personal experience, along with a deep and wide knowledge of history, especially of the Hellenistic era. Many of his poems are “pseudo-historical, or seemingly historical, or accurately, but quirkily, historical”.

One of Cavafy's most important works is his 1904 poem "Waiting for the Barbarians". In 1911, Cavafy wrote Ithaca, inspired by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey.

His poetry remained unrecognized in Greece until after the publication of his first anthology in 1935.

What makes Cavafy special and why I have included him on the site, is that he clearly understood the role of love in providing inspiration, and also understood the deep underlying symbolic nature of the Greek myths and legends.  He did not treat them as history, he treated them as symbolic.

His sensual poems are filled with the lyricism and emotion of same-sex love; inspired by recollection and remembrance.  In 1966, David Hockney made a series of prints to illustrate a selection of Cavafy's poems.  Thus we know that love and making love were two activities that provided him with inspiration.

One of thirteen David Hockney etchings for 'Illustrations for Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy'.
 

 

  Was there anything else?

Cavafy was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents, and was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. His father was a prosperous importer-exporter who had lived in England in earlier years and acquired British nationality. After his father died in 1870, Cavafy and his family settled for a while in Liverpool in England. In 1876, his family faced financial problems due to the Long Depression of 1873, so, by 1877, they had to move back to Alexandria.  

In 1882, disturbances in Alexandria caused the family to move again, though temporarily, to Constantinople. This was the year when a revolt broke out in Alexandria against the Anglo-French control of Egypt, thus precipitating the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War. Alexandria was bombarded by a British fleet and the family apartment at Ramleh was burned.

In 1885, Cavafy returned to Alexandria, where he lived for the rest of his life. His first work was as a journalist; then he took a position with the British-run Egyptian Ministry of Public Works for thirty years. (Egypt was a British protectorate until 1926.)  And it was only after he gained some measure of security and peace of mind that he became inspired.  Thus there was no poetic angst, but the peace born from a reduction in threats and a return to a less complex life.

He published his poetry from 1891 to 1904 in the form of broadsheets, and only for his close friends. Any acclaim he was to receive came mainly from within the Greek community of Alexandria. Eventually, in 1903, he was introduced to mainland-Greek literary circles through a favourable review by Xenopoulos. He received little recognition because his style differed markedly from the then-mainstream Greek poetry.

He died of cancer of the larynx on April 29, 1933, his 70th birthday. Since his death, Cavafy's reputation has grown. He is now considered one of the finest modern Greek poets. His poetry is taught at schools in mainland Greece and Cyprus, and in universities around the world.

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