Who is Constantine Peter Cavafy, and how did his work establish facets of modern European poetry?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Constantine P. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, between 1863 and 1933 who published 154 poems. Cavafy's poetry was thought to be very unconventional for his time period and went widely unnoticed until the Greeks were defeated in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922. After that defeat, a generation of Greek poets that could nearly be seen as nihilistic became inspired by Cavafy's poetry, giving him new popularity. Nihilists are a class of philosophers and artists who saw no meaning, purpose or value in life. Hence, being defeated by the Turks led these Greek poets to feel there was no purpose in life and be inspired by the pessimistic and ironic tone of Cavafy's work. Nihilism particularly became popular in literature after World War I when many artists, like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, began seeing the world in a state of moral decay. Hence, it can be said that Cavafy's poetry helped influence the presence of nihilistic philosophy found in later modern European literature.

Cavafy's poetry covered topics like the "uncertaintity about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality," and a desire to return to days of old ("Biography of Constantine P. Cavafy"). Cavafy drew his inspiration for his poetry from his own personal experiences and his knowledge of history, particularly of the Hellenistic era. Among his personal experiences that inspired his poetry were the financial difficulties he and his family experienced during the Long Depression of 1873, political unrest in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1882 due to Anglo-French conflict over control of Alexandria, and then the Greco-Turkish War in 1919 through 1922. Cavafy also developed a very unique poetry style in that they were written in free iambic form. Even though they were written in iambic meter, they were also usually free of rhymes, and his lines were usually written with 10 to 17 syllables.

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Jamie Wheeler | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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You are likely familiar with the Greek poets Homer and Plato.  There is less chance that you know the modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933).  However, Cavafy is considered to be one of the most significant poets of the modern era, despite the relatively few numbers of poems (just two hundred) that he published and the dearth of critical attention paid to him during his lifetime. 

Although the poet claimed Greece as his home, in fact, Cavafy spent most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt, the setting of many of his poems.  He did not become well-known until he died, in part due to the fact that he offered so few of his poems for publication.  He did, however, distribute many poems to friends.  Those poems (over which he agonized, revising time and again), eventually made their way to publication, where they garnered the critical attention they deserved, and established Cavafy as one of the most important voices in modern Greek literature. Among the things critics find to admire about his poems is Cavafy’s use of language, which frequently juxtaposes and blends historical concerns with modern ones, thereby moving Greek poetry into new spaces and places in the modern world.

Here is an example of those blended topics.  This is an excerpt from his poem, “Waiting for the Barbarians,” (1904): 

-What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

-Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What's the point of senators making laws now?
Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Cavafy was the son of Greek parents, but he was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt.  His father spent his time running his import-export company, dividing his time between Alexandria and Liverpool, England. When his father died in 1870, (Constantine was just seven years old), the family moved to Liverpool; Cavafy’s two older brothers took over the business. Cavafy lived in Liverpool until he was sixteen, where he learned to speak English and appreciate British literature.  At age seventeen,  the family moved back to Egypt. 

After a short time in Egypt, the family moved back to Greece, a first for the young writer. It was during this time that Constantine turned to poetry to try to explore and perhaps resolve his feelings about both being Greek and his realizations that he was a homosexual.

Although he lived in Greece for several years, Alexandria felt like home and Cavafy returned to his adopted land in the 1880s. Now an adult, Cavafy got a job as a journalist, and then as a stockbroker on the Egyptian Stock Exchange. In 1892, he was hired to work at the Ministry of Public Works. His talents were quickly recognized; he rapidly ascended from being a clerk to a director.  Constantine Cavafy worked at the Ministry of Public Works for thirty years.

A bureaucrat by day; poet by night: in short time, Cavafy was establishing himself around the city as a respected poet.  After work, he would spend his evenings composing poems and relentlessly revising them.  Only when he had agonized over and repeatedly revised a poem would he decide a piece was publishable. The few he did offer were self-published; he would  have the work printed on either broadsheets or pamphlets and give them to his friends.

Greek history captured the poet’s imagination. He frequently wrote about the Roman and Byzantine periods in particular, using real historical people and places to illuminate his themes and struggles. One of his largest areas of personal contention was his conflicted feelings about Christianity’s view of homosexuality.  However, by 1902, his erotic poems suggest that he had overcome this personal hurdle.

Constantine Cavafy died of throat cancer in 1933. His last words were of regret; he was sad that he would not be able to write any more poems. His canon consists of less than two hundred poems most of which were never published in his lifetime.  After intense revisions, when he was forty-one, Cavafy self-published fourteen poems.  Six years later, he added another seven poems to this collection. 

Posthumously, the remains works have enjoyed wide critical praise.  The novelist, E.M. Forster (A Passage to India, Howards End) remarked on Cavafy’s unique language and interesting philosophy.  Other critics have called Cavafy one of the first modern poets, along with T.S. Eliot, and William Butler Yeats.

SourcePoetry Criticism, ©2002 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved. 

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