Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
In every century there are those poets who work on the small scale, at the intimate level, where the individual seems to speak, or even whisper, half overheard, to one other person. The language of these close, personal conversations seems to assume (or perhaps create) a shared knowledge between poet and reader. The poems allude rather than explain; they hint, rather than describe; and they refer rather than demonstrate. Most of all, through the whole body of the poet’s work, the poems, however different their subject matter or tone, continue conversations begun long before and resumed, perhaps after a long pause in time, without a moment’s lapse in thought.
Not infrequently, these poets remain completely or largely unpublished during their lifetimes and their discovery, fame, and influence comes most fully after their deaths. The United States’ Emily Dickinson is one famous example; Britain’s Gerard Manley Hopkins another. Other poets of this sort may publish and even achieve some level of notice, yet the overall tenor and meaning of their poetic conversation remains largely hidden from their contemporaries. A. E. Housman stands for this type, and the shifting interpretation and appreciation of his poems illustrates how difficult a thing it can be to understand the meaning of even “simple” and straightforward verse.
Constantine Cavafy, perhaps the greatest of poets writing in Greek during the twentieth century, is in this company. Cavafy was primarily known during his lifetime for the relatively few poems which he had printed in broadsheets and which he distributed to his inner circle of friends and relatives. Cavafy did assemble three small booklets of his self-gathered verse (Poems: 1905-1915, Poems: 1916-1918, andPoems: 1919-1932) but it was not until after his death, much like Dickinson and Hopkins, that the true extent and measure of his genius and its accomplishment became known. Now, with the publication ofBefore Time Could Change Them, readers can experience Cavafy’s work in an English that is close to the spare, direct, unsentimental, but often highly sensuous language that is Cavafy’s original Greek. In reading these poems, one can see why Cavafy has earned such high esteem for such a relatively small body of work.
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Greek parents, Cavafy was raised largely in England and returned to live his adult life in Egypt, yet he never became either an English or an Egyptian citizen. Rather, for never-articulated reasons of his own, he chose to spend thirty years as a “provisional clerk” (a permanent but unsecured position) with the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation. Perhaps this sense of a transitory yet enduring existence echoed the feelings which were expressed in so many of his poems; perhaps it simply suited Cavafy to reside in a twilight area of his own devising where he could observe but not be forced to commit himself. Above all, the arrangement allowed him to reside in Alexandria: a vital point, since it is impossible to conceive of Cavafy and his verse without that city—or that city without Cavafy and his verse.
The verse came relatively late, at least to the public’s attention. It was not until 1895 that Cavafy began to write seriously and fairly steadily. It was not until 1903 that his poems were published in periodicals such asPanatheneum, an Athenian literary journal. Cavafy was forty-one when he published his own first book, which contained only fourteen poems. His first stage of becoming known (as much as he ever was) outside his immediate circle was in the decade from 1908 to 1918, when his work appeared fairly regularly in the Athens literary magazine Nea Zoe (“new life”) and he was read throughout the Greek world of the eastern Mediterranean, which at that time included much of Asia Minor (modern Turkey), the Levant (today’s Middle East), and Egypt. His poems began to be translated into English, French, and Italian, and Cavafy was known to a slightly wider, but certainly not widespread, audience. After his death, his known poems were collected and published in Athens under the title Poiemata (1935; The Complete Poems of Cavafy, 1961).
Ironically enough, although Cavafy wrote in Greek and is known as the foremost Greek poet of the twentieth century, he visited Greece only on a few occasions and seems not to have cared for it. Ironic, but not entirely surprising. Cavafy’s Greek world was not the modern peninsula of the European mainland but rather the islands and coastal cities along the Ionian shore of Asia Minor and, above all, the city of Alexandria, lodged at the mouth of Nile...
(The entire section is 1903 words.)
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