Constantine Cavafy Essay - Critical Essays

Cavafy, Constantine


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.

Principal Works

Poiemata 1935

The Complete Poems of C. P. Cavafy 1948

Poems 1951

The Poems of C. P. Cavafy 1952

The Complete Poems of C. P. Cavafy 1961

Hapanta 1963

Fourteen Poems 1966

Poiemata, 1896-1933 1966

Autographa poiemata (1896-1910) 1968

The Complete Poems of C. P. Cavafy 1968; revised 1976

Collected Poems / C. P. Cavafy 1976

Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy 2001


E. M. Forster (essay date 1923)

SOURCE: “The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy,” in Pharos and Pharillon, Alfred A. Knopf, 1923, pp. 110-17.

[In the following excerpt, Forster—a noted British novelist and friend of Cavafy—describes Cavafy's stature and work in modern Greek poetry.]

Modern Alexandria is scarcely a city of the soul. Founded upon cotton with the concurrence of onions and eggs, ill built, ill planned, ill drained—many hard things can be said against it, and most are said by its inhabitants. Yet to some of them, as they traverse the streets, a delightful experience can occur. They hear their own name proclaimed in firm yet meditative accents—accents that seem not so much to expect an...

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Petroula Kephala Ruehlen (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: “Constantine Cavafy: A European Poet,” in Nine Essays in Modern Literature, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Louisiana State University Press, 1965, pp. 36-62.

[In the following essay, Ruehlen posits that Cavafy was a European poet because of his firm grounding in Western culture and his continued relevance to European readers.]

On the twenty-ninth of April 1933, Constantine Cavafy died on his seventieth birthday. A few days before, he had jotted down for a friend to read—cancer of the throat had deprived the poet of the ability to speak—“And I had twenty-five more poems to write!”

In 1963 Greece, the world, celebrated the centennial...

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George Seferis (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: “Cavafy and Eliot—A Comparison,” in On the Greek Style: Selected Essays in Poetry and Hellenism, translated by Rex Warner and Th. D. Frangopoulos, Little, Brown and Company, 1966, pp. 119-62.

[In the excerpt which follows, Seferis proposes that the poetry of Cavafy and T. S. Elliot, despite differences in technique, contains parallel themes and similar outlooks.]

I am not going to suggest that Constantine Cavafy and Thomas Eliot are bound together by any bonds of influence. They are too widely separated by the years—almost a whole generation. Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863; Eliot in St. Louis in 1888. When Eliot is still at the starting point of...

(The entire section is 10049 words.)

C. M. Bowra (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “Constantine Cavafy and the Greek Past,” in The Creative Experiment, Macmillan, 1967, pp. 29-60.

[In the following excerpt, Bowra discusses Cavafy's unusual relationship to Greek culture and his life in Alexandria, arguing that his best poetry attests to his individuality.]

The Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy, who was born in 1868 and spent most of his time in Alexandria until his death in 1933, presents a special case, both as a man and as a poet, of one whose situation cut him off from much of contemporary life and from any immediate or easy connection with a civilised past. His case is not unique, and the United States has more than once shown that it...

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Edmund Keeley and George Savidis (essay date 1971)

SOURCE: An introduction to Passions and Ancient Days: New Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis, The Dial Press, 1971, pp. ix-xxiii.

[In the following excerpt, Keeley and Savidis discuss the nature, scope, and characteristics of Cavafy's poetry as well as his reluctance to publish poetry during his lifetime.]

C. P. Cavafy's mode of publishing—or not publishing—his poems was as original in its way as the poetry itself became once he found his mature voice. The implications of this mode help to explain why it was not until some thirty years after his death that the poems included in the selection offered here finally appeared in print to complete the...

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D. N. Maronitis (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: “Arrogance and Intoxication: The Poet and History in Cavafy,” in Eighteen Texts: Writings by Contemporary Greek Authors, edited by Willis Barnstone, Harvard University Press, 1972, pp. 117-34.

[In the following essay, Maronitis provides a close textual and historical study of Cavafy's poem “Darius.”]

In times like ours, when history is produced and written by machines with human appendages, of what use can the poet's voice be?

In a small, poor country like ours, where land, seas, and men are transformed by the electronic computers of the powerful into programs of war, economic, and tourist policies, what can be salvaged by the few...

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Kimon Friar (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: “Constantine Caváfis,” in Modern Greek Poetry, edited by Kimon Friar, Simon and Schuster, 1973, pp. 22-27.

[In the following essay, Friar discusses the characteristics of Cavafy's poetry, ranking his historical poems as his best.]

Kostís Palamás was to cast his shadow over most Greek poets during the first decades of the twentieth century, but it was his younger (by four years) contemporary Cónstantine Caváfis who, although not very well known in Greece proper until the middle thirties, was ultimately to challenge and overwhelm him as the true predecessor of modern poetry. Caváfis was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863, and died there in 1933. But for...

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Robert Liddell (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: “The Poems before 1911,” in Cavafy: A Critical Biography, Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1974, pp. 132-50.

[In the following excerpt, Liddell chronicles Cavafy's early development as a poet of note, focusing on the period between 1891 and 1911.]

As Cavafy himself caused a line to be drawn dividing his poems written before 1911 from those written after that date, it seems natural to make use of it, though it need not be given undue significance; there were several dates in his literary development.

It will be best to set out briefly and clearly the facts about the early poems: considered as publications, they fall into three groups:


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Nasos Vayenas (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: “The Language of Irony (Towards a Definition of the Poetry of Cavafy),” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 5, 1979, pp. 43-56.

[In the essay which follows, Vayenas attempts to settle the debate over whether Cavafy's poetry is lyric or dramatic by emphasizing the importance of verbal and situational irony in his works.]

The first time André Gide heard the name of Cavafy was during his visit to Greece, in April 1939. He was talking to Dimaras, Theotokas and Seferis when the conversation turned to the poet of Alexandria. Gide asked what kind of poetry Cavafy wrote. ‘Lyrique’, Dimaras replied. ‘Didactique’, corrected Seferis. Later on Dimaras...

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Valeria A. Caires (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Originality and Eroticism: Constantine Cavafy and the Alexandrian Epigram,” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 6, 1980, pp. 131-55.

[In the essay below, Caires compares and contrasts ideas in Cavafy's poetry with those typical in Hellenistic literature, revealing significant differences.]

Although it has become generally accepted by critics that Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) was influenced greatly by the Hellenistic epigram ‘in attitude, subject matter, and technique’,1 a close comparison of that poetic tradition and Cavafy's poems reveals interesting differences as well as similarities. We know that Cavafy was familiar with...

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C. Capri-Karka (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Introduction” and “Journey and Complications,” in Love and the Symbolic Journey in the Poetry of Cavafy, Eliot and Seferis: An Interpretation with Detailed Poem-by-Poem Analysis, Pella Publishing Company, 1982, pp. 19-28, 83-94.

[In the following excerpt, Capri-Karka discusses Cavafy's evolution as a poet and provides a detailed thematic analysis of several of his poems.]

“Ithaca”1 is considered not only central for the theme of the journey but also the “brain” of Cavafy's whole work—if one can extend here the symbolism used by Stuart Gilbert for the ninth episode of James Joyce's Ulysses. It is for this reason that Cavafy...

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Roderick Beaton (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: “The History Man,” in Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora, Vol. 10, Nos. 1-2, Spring/Summer, 1983, pp. 23-44.

[In the essay which follows, Beaton urges critics to take a closer look at Cavafy's use of time and history in his poetry, arguing that the poet has a more complex and intricate method of merging history and the present than scholars previously believed.]

“It was all a plot.” “I thought you liked plots … In any case, it's the plot of history. It was simply inevitable.” “But you helped inevitability along a little. …” “There's a process … It charges everyone a price for the place they occupy, the stands they...

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Gregory Jusdanis (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “C. P. Cavafy and the Politics of Poetry,” in The Text and Its Margins: Post-Structuralist Approaches to Twentieth-Century Greek Literature, edited by Margaret Alexiou and Vassilis Lambropoulos, Pella Publishing Company, Inc., 1985, pp. 37-58.

[In the essay below, Jusdanis analyzes Cavafy's poems “The Enemies,” “A Byzantine Nobleman in Exhile Composing Verses,” “Growing in Spirit” and the essay “The Thoughts of an Old Artist” discussing ideas of power and politics in his work.]

The politics of Cavafy's poetry has been largely ignored or misunderstood, since traditional criticism assumes that his oeuvre itself is apolitical. Thus, any...

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Margaret Alexiou (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “C. P. Cavafy's ‘Dangerous’ Drugs: Poetry, Eros and the Dissemination of Images,” in The Text and Its Margins: Poststructuralist Approaches to Twentieth-Century Greek Literature, edited by Margaret Alexiou and Vassilis Lambropoulos, Pella Publishing Company, Inc., 1985, pp. 157-96.

[In the following essay, Alexiou applies a deconstructionalist critical approach of Cavafy and explores the concepts of truth, poetry, and eros in his poems.]

Un texte n'est un texte que s'il cache au premier regard, au premier venu, la loi de sa composition et la règle de son jeu. Un texte reste d'ailleurs toujours imperceptible. La loi et la règle ne...

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Publishers Weekly (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: A review of Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 248, No. 13, March 26, 2001, p. 85.

[In the following review, the critic compares Before Time Could Change Them with two other Cavafy collections, finding that the main asset of Before Time Could Change Them is its inclusion of several poems never before published in English.]

Though Cavafy never published a book during his lifetime, preferring to circulate his poems privately in broadsides and pamphlets, acclaim for his work has grown steadily, both in the U.S. and abroad, since his death in 1933. A Greek citizen who lived and...

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Further Reading


Alexiou, Margaret. “Eroticism and Poetry.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 10, Nos. 1-2 (Spring/Summer 1983): 45-65.

Overview of the erotic nature of Cavafy's poetry in response to past critical interpretation.

Bien, Peter. Constantine Cavafy. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964, 48p.

Identifies the aspects of Cavafy's poetry which constitute a modern voice.

Bowersock, G. W. “The Julian Poems of C. P. Cavafy.” Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 7 (1981): 89-104.

Explores the sensual and historic nature of five Cavafy poems on the theme of...

(The entire section is 337 words.)