Constantine Cavafy Critical Essays

Introduction

(Poetry Criticism)

Constantine Cavafy 1863-1933

(Full name Constantine Peter Cavafy. Also Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis) Greek poet and essayist.

Despite sparse publication of his poems and little critical attention during his lifetime, Cavafy is considered among the most significant modern Greek poets. Living most of his life in Alexandria, Egypt, a setting which played a prominent role in his poems, Cavafy identified himself as a Greek in language and culture. He published few poems during his lifetime, preferring to distribute his verse—after severe and constant revision—among his friends. Since his death, Cavafy has garnered great critical attention, and has been praised for his unique use of language and skill at merging historical subjects with modern sentiments to create a universal statement. He is credited with establishing many facets of modern European poetry and so moving Greek poetry in a new direction.

Biographical Information

Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt on April 17, 1863, the son of Greek parents who had immigrated to Egypt in the 1850s. His father ran an import-export company with business dealings in Liverpool, England. After his father's death in 1870, Cavafy moved to Liverpool with his family so that his older brothers could manage the business. Cavafy spent the formative years between his ninth and sixteenth year in England, where he was exposed to British literature and the English language. The family returned to Alexandria and later moved to Greece, after the family business was mismanaged. During his teen years, Cavafy began to write poetry as a means of exploring his Greek identity and homosexual feelings. In the 1880s Cavafy returned to Alexandria, where he secured work as a newspaper correspondent. He worked as a stock broker on the Egyptian Stock Exchange before hiring on at the Ministry of Public Works in 1892. He worked his way up from special clerk in the Irrigation Service to assistant director during his thirty-year career there. During this period, Cavafy established himself within Alexandria as an impressive poet. He spent each evening writing and endlessly critiquing his poetry. Periodically, he would self-publish a poem he deemed worthy as a pamphlet or broadsheet which he distributed among his friends. Cavafy exhibited a great interest in Greek history, particularly the Roman and Byzantine periods; in many of his poems, he focuses on historical settings and characters. In addition, Cavafy grappled with the conflict between his Christian faith and his homosexuality. By 1902, Cavafy appears to have come to a resolution about his sexuality, increasingly writing erotic and openly homosexual poems after this period. He died in 1933 of throat cancer, bemoaning from his deathbed the lack of time to write more poems.

Major Works

Cavafy left only a small number of poems, numbering less than 200, many of which were not published during his lifetime. Cavafy favored intense scrutiny of his poems and long periods of revision before he would allow his poetry to be read by others. He self-published 14 poems when he was forty-one, reissuing them in revised form with an additional seven poems six years later. His work can be classified chronologically and topically. Cavafy began his career as a poet in 1891, the year he wrote the sonnet “Builders.” However, he believed that his best work was accomplished after 1911. Cavafy wrote the majority of his poetry in Greek. Many of his poems feature historical settings and characters, particularly those from the Greek diaspora in Alexandria and Antioch. Cavafy's historical poems bridge the circumstances of the past with the sentiments and conditions of the present, merging ancient and modern culture to create universal and timeless themes. For instance, in the poem “Those Who Fought for the Achaen League,” Cavafy links an ancient Greek military loss with the fall of Asia Minor in the 1920s. Historical poems such as “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “The God Forsakes Anthony,” “In the Month of Athyr,” “Alexandrian Kings,” and “Darius” are considered among his best works. In addition to his historical poetry, for which he is best known, Cavafy wrote many erotic poems, especially towards the end of his life. In such poems as “Stairs,” “On the Street,” and “At the Café Door,” the poet laments love which cannot be expressed openly—a forbidden and censored relationship. Increasingly, Cavafy was openly sensual in his treatment of physical love. His tone favors situational and linguistic irony, and his use of Greek combines ancient formal language with vernacular phrases and slang heard at the turn of the century on the streets of Alexandria.

Critical Reception

Critics have almost universally praised Cavafy's poetry over the past century. In 1923, after spending time in Alexandria, where he was introduced to Cavafy, novelist E.M. Forster published an article describing the merits of Cavafy's work, his unique use of language and his unusual philosophies. Forster's essay introduced other modern writers, such as T.S. Eliot, to Cavafy's poetry. Critics identify Cavafy as being one of the first modern poets, establishing new parameters at the same time (but in isolation from) as many noted European modernists such as William Butler Yeats and Eliot. In addition, scholars cite Cavafy as a major influence on modern Greek poetry. Scholars such as Petroula Kephala Ruehlen (1965) and C.M. Bowra (1967) praise Cavafy's individual mastery of language which mixed the high Greek of scholarship and ancient texts with the everyday slang of modern Alexandria. Critics maintain that through his careful use of language, often so subtle that it defies translation, Cavafy perfected his tone and contributed to the impact of his poetry. In much scholarship, critics focus upon Cavafy's use of historical matter and his manipulation of time. Scholars disagree over Cavafy's method of interpreting time and the nature of history: while some argue that Cavafy favored the use of history as myth, a symbolic language through which to depict universal themes, others claim that Cavafy's philosophy of history was more complex. For instance, Roderick Beaton (1983) believes that Cavafy is able to transcend mere historical narrative to achieve poetry by juxtaposing individual experiences with historical subjects. Although critics disagree about how Cavafy achieves his startling emotional impact from verse written in flat, prose-like language filled with distant historical descriptions, they agree that his poetry transcends his situation as a provincial poet and establishes him as an important voice in modern Western poetry.