Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

To read Cavafy, one must know how he viewed himself. He once said that he had two abilities: to write poetry and to write history. The history that he used allowed him to objectify the world he lived in and was of interest in itself, for it was the history of Greek civilization. After Alexander the Great’s conquests in Asia, despite the collapse of his empire, there were for many years small and large Greek-ruled states as far away from Greece as the borders of India; political power was also cultural power. Greek culture did not, however, die with the loss of political power.

The history that Cavafy uses is largely the history of the Hellenistic world after the end of Greek independence. Even before the Romans conquered the eastern part of the Mediterranean, however, the prestige of Greek civilization had a powerful effect on the Empire. After the conquest, the high culture of that eastern half of the Mediterranean was Greek, and everywhere Greek culture was regarded as the epitome of cultural achievement. Although in one sense Cavafy is satirizing the philhellene king, in another he is in agreement with him. They both love the Greek language and Greek culture; these things give meaning to their lives.

For Cavafy, history is not simply the recounting of events or the examination of an underlying economic or social substructure. Indeed, one of the reasons for Cavafy’s use of the dramatic monologue was that it served his idea that it is the...

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