The Poetry of Cavafy Essay - Critical Essays

Konstantionos Petrou Kabaphes

Critical Evaluation

When E. M. Forster published, in 1923, his small book of Alexandrian sketches called PHAROS AND PHARILLON, he included a short essay on the poetry of Cavafy—or Knstantionos Petrou Kabaphs, to give the Greek form of his name. The poet was described as he was about to begin an interminable sentence dealing with the duplicity of the Emperor Alexius Comnenus in the year 1096. With great charm and sympathy Forster then proceeded to indicate his own appreciation of Cavafy’s poetry. But though a few people, including W. H. Auden, valued this poetry highly, it remained almost unknown outside the Greek world.

The poet’s background put him outside the main current of modern European literature, for his family, on both the paternal and maternal sides, was Greek from Constantinople, though his father’s family had settled in Alexandria in the middle of the last century. The poet himself lived in both cities, and it was during his residence in Constantinople with his mother’s family that he developed his great interest in Byzantine history, the study of which is reflected in many of his poems. He was also involved as a young man in a literary movement, known as the “New Life,” that is totally unfamiliar to Western Europeans but which was important in modern Greek writing. This movement grew out of the quarrel between the adherents of “pure” and of “demotic” Greek. Cavafy, like some other young writers, was interested in determining the value of the demotic language, the language of the people, as a literary vehicle. Although he had a great reverence for the pure, classic Greek of his intellectual heritage, in his poetry he combined with great skill this classical language with the demotic. This literary tour de force is, of course, meaningless to anyone who does not know both ancient and modern Greek, nor does the history of English literature offer a parallel situation.

Cavafy was a passionate “Panhellenic,” a man enormously conscious of the long literary and intellectual tradition behind him. But a word should be said about what “Greek” meant to him. To the modern American, even though he has been reared in the last dim twilight of the classical system of education, “Greek” immediately conjures up the shades of Homer and of the tragic dramatists, the Athens of Pericles and of Plato; in short, what is usually called the Golden Age of Greek civilization. This, however, is not the Greek world with which Cavafy was concerned. What fascinated him and what the term “Greek” conveyed to him was the period in history that old-fashioned books used to call the Hellenistic Age; that is, the period following the conquests of Alexander the Great, during which that monarch’s vast empire was split into the smaller kingdoms that rimmed the Mediterranean and Greek culture was spread throughout the known world. Older historians of literature and art used, rather disdainfully, to refer to this as a period of decadence; but Cavafy, a modern Greek, obviously felt closer to it than to the age of Pericles. To this heritage, he added that of the Byzantine Empire, thus drawing together his two mother cities, Alexandria and Constantinople.

Cavafy’s poems divide quite neatly into two categories. First there are the poems based on episodes from the...

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