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Constantine Cavafy
(Egypt, 1863)   
Constantine  Cavafy

In Alexandria, Egypt, on the southeastern periphery of the Greek diaspora where he lived most of his seventy years (1863-1933), Constantine P. Cavafy wrote the poetry that was to earn him international recognition as one of the most important poets of the twentieth century.

Cavafy is reported to have called himself, late in life, a “poet of old age”, comparing himself with Anatole France who “wrote his colossal work after the age of forty-five”. Indeed, it was after he reached his fortieth year, following a poetic crisis which led to what he termed a ‘philosophical scrutiny’ of his earlier poetic production (1903-04), that Cavafy discovered his own poetic voice—that “unique tone of voice” as W.H. Auden has called it that “survives translation”.

The process of discovery was a long one: it lasted some twenty years, at the latest from 1882, when he wrote his first extant poem, to around 1903. Along the way, drawing from his wide reading in European (especially English and French) literature, Cavafy experimented with the poetic idioms of Romanticism, the Parnasse and Symbolism. Poems written during the 1880s (but also into the 1890s) bear the imprint of Romantic influences—Shelley, Keats, Lady Anne Barnard, Hugo, as well as representatives of Greek Romanticism—, and this at a time when in Greece Romanticism had been declared “dead” by the poet Kostis Palamas, chef de file of the literary ‘Generation of 1880’. The early 1890s saw Cavafy turn in two new directions. On the one hand he adopted the model of the ‘Parnassiens’ in his use of “Ancient Days” (one of his early thematic headings) as a source of poetic inspiration. The attraction of Symbolism was, however, significantly stronger. In the poem ‘Correspondence according to Baudelaire’, written in 1892, he declares his attachment to the French poet’s notions of “correspondences” and synaesthesia, while in ‘The Builders’, written the same year, he echoes Baudelaire’s rejection of the ideal of progress. His adherence to Symbolism and to other associated movements (Aestheticism, Esoterism, Decadence) during the 1890s is evident in a number of other poems as well as in his one short story, ‘In Broad Daylight’.

Cavafy’s apprenticeship to various poetic schools during his formative years coincides with his early interest in history. There is abundant evidence of his wide reading in ancient, Byzantine, and European history, as would be expected of a writer who at the age of fifteen had begun compiling an historical dictionary, and who in later years would call himself an “historical poet”. Of particular significance in view of Cavafy’s development are his reading notes on Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Cavafy’s extensive ‘dialogue’ with Gibbon during the years c.1893-1899 makes clear his disagreement with the eighteenth-century historian-philosopher’s unfavourable view of Byzantium and of Christianity, whether on matters of history, spirituality, or aesthetics, as well as his espousal of the views of the Greek Romantic historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos, known for his role in the rehabilitation of Byzantium in the modern Greek consciousness during the second half of the nineteenth century. It was in this climate that Cavafy wrote a series of early ‘Byzantine’ poems with a ‘national’ character which he later expressly rejected. For it was shortly after his encounter with Gibbon that Cavafy underwent the poetic crisis of the years 1899-1903 which led to his passage to realism and to poetic maturity. Poems from these years in which Cavafy questions established myths as he ‘rewrites’ episodes from the modern and ancient traditions—Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Wagner’s Lohengrin, the prologue to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon—reflect his rapprochement with Gibbon’s ironic view of history and at the same time his abandonment of Romantic historiography and Symbolist mysticism and aesthetics.

The one hundred and fifty-four poems that comprise Cavafy's recognized work (some thirty additional examples were left unfinished at his death) fall into three categories, which the poet himself identified as follows: poems which, though not precisely ‘philosophical’, “provoke thought”; ‘historical’ poems; and ‘hedonistic’ (or ‘aesthetic’) poems. Many poems may be considered either historical or hedonistic, as Cavafy was also careful to point out. The poems of the first category (to which belong some of Cavafy’s best-known pieces, such as ‘The City’ and ‘Ithaca’), all published before 1916, often display a certain didacticism. The historical poems (often historical in appearance only), the first of which was published in 1906, are usually set in the Hellenistic age (including Late Antiquity), the period which Cavafy believed was “particularly fitting as a context for his characters”, although Byzantium does not disappear entirely from his poetry. Beginning in 1917 the poems of this category take on a political (in the broad sense) element which gains in importance as it interweaves with questions such as religion and ethics. As for the third category, Cavafy’s first daringly-hedonistic poem (‘Dangerous Thoughts’) was published only in 1911 (the year which Cavafy indicated as a dividing line in his poetic production). Later poems became increasingly explicit—although Cavafy did not begin publishing poems in which the eroticism is specified as homosexual until after 1918—and acquire a social dimension as they depict characters living on the margins of society in sometimes harshly realistic settings.

Cavafy was keenly aware that his poetry was ahead of its time, especially within the sphere of modern Greek letters. The poem ‘For the Shop’, published in 1913, speaks of this awareness: a craftsman of exquisite jewels, “beautiful according to his taste, to his desire, his vision”, will “leave them in the safe, examples of his bold, his skilful work”. The “safe” would in fact remain closed for several years, for although Cavafy’s work had been presented to the Athenian public in 1903 by the writer Grigorios Xenopoulos, it was either ignored or ridiculed by the literati of the metropolis until around 1918, when it began to gain wider acceptance—although the voices of detractors were still audible. The reasons for the negative criticism were diverse: Cavafy’s language, a subtle mixture of demotic and purist Greek not in keeping with the directives of the ‘demoticist’ movement; his style, considered prosaic; his lack of idealism; his bold eroticism. It is therefore not surprising that in an interview reportedly given three years before his death (1930) Cavafy described himself as “an ultra modern poet, a poet of future generations” whose poetry “will not simply be closed within libraries as part of the historical record of the development of modern Greek literature”.

Cavafy’s prediction was fulfilled. Not only is his work read more in Greece now than it was during his lifetime, but it has traveled well beyond the confines of the modern Greek literary world. It was Cavafy’s friend E.M. Forster who is his essay ‘The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy’, published in 1919, first presented to the English public the “Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe”. The first English translation of the Cavafy ‘canon’ (by John Mavrogordatos) was published in 1951; since then the poet’s work has been translated into most of the world’s languages. But beyond being the most widely translated poet of modern Greece, Cavafy is a poet with whom a host of other poets worldwide have been ‘conversing’ through their own work for over seventy years. His “unique tone of voice”, which he laboured so hard to discover and then to perfect, has thus become the foundation for a rich new poetic dialogue.

© Diana Haas

in Greece Books and Writers. Athens, Ministry of Culture-National Book Centre of Greece and Agra publications, 2001.

Dangerous thoughts
The satrapy
I´ve looked so much
I´ve brought to art
Long ago
Melancholy of Jason Kleander, poet in Kommagini, a.D. 595
From the school of the reknown philosopher
Of coloured glass
In the month Athyr

More about Cavafy's poetry:
An introduction to Cavafy's poetry, by W.H. Auden
Pendulum's song: a Joseph Brodsky's text on Cavafy's poetry

Publications (selection):
Collected poems Trans. Edmund Keeley. Edit. George Savvidis. London,the Hogarth press, 1975.
Poems Trans. John Mavrogordato. London, Chatto and Windus,1971.
Collected poems Trans. Edmund Keeley. Edit. George Savvidis. Princeton University Press, 1992.
Passies en Dagen van weleer Trans. G. H. Blanken. Amsterdam, Athenaeum - Polak & Van Gennep, 1978.
Gedichte. Das gesammelte werk Trans. Helmut von den Steinen. Amsterdam, Castrvm Peregrini Presse, 1985.
Poesie erotiche Trans. Nicola Crocetti. Milano. Crocetti. 1983.
Poemes Trans. Dominique Grandmont. Paris. Gallimard / Institut Francais d' Athenes. 1999.
Kavafis integro Trans. Miguel Castillo Didier. Santiago. Universidad De Chile. 1991.


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