Constantine P. Cavafy

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Other Literary Forms

Except for a few essays on literary topics and short notes on language and metrics to be found in his papers, Constantine P. Cavafy did not work in any literary form other than poetry. Greek poet George Seferis, in On the Greek Style (1966), quotes Cavafy as having said, near the end of his life, “I am a historical poet. I could never write a novel or a play; but I hear inside me a hundred and twenty-five voices telling me I could write history.”


Constantine P. Cavafy did not achieve public acclaim during his lifetime. The fortunes of war, however, marooned two English novelists—E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell—in Alexandria during World War I and World War II, respectively. Forster had one of Cavafy’s best poems, “The God Abandons Antony,” translated and printed in his Alexandria: A History and Guide (1922) and spread his name among such literary figures as T. S. Eliot, T. E. Lawrence, and Arnold Toynbee, so that after Forster’s stay in Alexandria, Cavafy received many European visitors. Lawrence Durrell modeled aspects of Cavafy in the figures of the brooding old poet of the city and the homosexual physician, Balthazar, important characters in his masterwork The Alexandria Quartet (includes Justine, 1957; Balthazar, 1958; Mountolive, 1958; Clea, 1960). Thus, the Alexandria which tantalizes the imagination of the modern Western reader is to no small degree the city as imagined by Cavafy.

Cavafy remained almost unknown in Greece until after his death. In 1963, the centenary of his birth was marked by the publication of a collected edition of his works, including both his poetry and volumes of previously unpublished prose and other prose. The 1968 publication of seventy-five previously unpublished poems was the major literary event of the year in Athens.

Adding weight to Cavafy’s reputation was W. H. Auden’s statement in 1961 (in his introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy, translated by Rae Dalven) that Cavafy had influenced his writing for more than thirty years. Auden singled out for praise “the most original aspect of [Cavafy’s] style, the mixture, both in his vocabulary and his syntax, of demotic and purist Greek,” and paid tribute also to Cavafy’s rich evocation of Alexandria and of Hellenic culture.

In the early 1880’s, when Cavafy began to write, the official language of Greece—the language employed by the government and taught in the schools—was Katharevousa or purist Greek, “a language,” in the words of Linos Politis in A History of Modern Greek Literature (1973), “based on popular speech, but ‘corrected’ and ‘embellished’ on the model of the ancient.” At the same time, there were in Greece passionate advocates of the demotic or spoken tongue, who believed that it alone should be the language of Greek literature and the Greek state. Although this linguistic controversy persists in Greece even today, modern Greek writers have overwhelmingly adopted the demotic. The tension between a demotic base and borrowings from purist, classical, and the other evolutionary forms of the language accounts in part for the remarkable vitality of modern Greek poetry—a development in which Cavafy played a significant role. Cavafy himself said, “I have tried to blend the spoken with the written language . . . trembling over every word.” The remarkable result was a poetic diction that not only draws on the traditions of Greek from its entire history but also, on occasion, is able to combine phrases and whole lines of ancient Greek with the modern, demotic language and yet remain entirely clear and understandable to any educated Greek reader.

Cavafy’s distinctive language can be appreciated only in the original Greek, but even a reader who knows Cavafy’s poems in translation can appreciate one of his principal achievements: the creation, in Auden’s words, of a unique “tone of voice, a personal speech . . . immediately recognizable.” Cavafy’s poetic voice represents a “style of deliberately prosaic quality, simple, concentrated, almost dry, economical, unadorned, divested of every element which would cause it to deviate from the strictest austerity—at its best inevitable,” as Petroula Ruehlen puts it in Nine Essays in Modern Literature (1965). It is above all Cavafy’s voice that, in translation, has exercised a powerful influence on contemporary American poetry.


Constantine Peter Cavafy was born Konstantionos Petrou Kabaphes, the youngest and most beloved son of a wealthy Alexandrian merchant; both Cavafy’s father and his mother came from prosperous families in Constantinople. By the time of Cavafy’s birth, his father’s business in cotton, grain, and buffalo hides had benefited from the Crimean War and the family had settled in a luxurious house in the fashionable rue Cherif in Alexandria. The poet’s first seven years were spent in a household accustomed to elaborate balls and parties and the company of wealthy business people and professionals of various nationalities. A generous man of European outlook who had lived for some time in England, Cavafy’s father saw to it that the children were tended by an English nurse, a French tutor, and Greek servants. Unfortunately, he died in 1870 without leaving the family well provided for; though the family was always “respectable,” and though the Cavafy brothers retained the cachet of a wealthy, upper-class milieu, the family fortune was severely reduced.

In 1872, Cavafy’s mother, Haricleia, took the family to Liverpool. Because of the economic crisis of 1876 and the three eldest sons’ inexperience and ill-advised speculation, the family farm had to be liquidated in 1879, whereupon the Cavafys returned to Alexandria actually impoverished. Cavafy had thus spent seven formative years, from the age of nine to the age of sixteen, in England, where he acquired an excellent facility with the English language and a lifelong love for the works of William Shakespeare, Robert Browning, and Oscar Wilde. For the rest of his life, Cavafy spoke Greek with a slight English accent and often spoke or corresponded in English with his brothers; in the position he held for thirty years immediately under British superiors in the Irrigation Department of the Ministry of Public Works in Alexandria, he was valued for his ability to teach Egyptian employees the English language.

Upon his return to Alexandria in 1879, Cavafy enrolled for three years in a business school, the Hermes Lyceum. In 1882, political and military disturbances by Egyptian nationalists seeking to end foreign rule and expel foreigners led to the bombardment of the city by British warships anchored in the harbor. Along with many other Europeans, the Cavafy family left, this time for Constantinople and the home of Haricleia Cavafy’s father, George Photiades, a wealthy diamond merchant. While living in Constantinople from 1882 to 1885, Cavafy wrote his first poetry and had his first homosexual experiences. These two activities were to become the chief concerns of his life. He wrote both prose and poetry in French and English as well as in Greek. It was also during this period in Constantinople that Cavafy first became familiar with demotic Greek.

In 1885, Haricleia Cavafy moved the family back to Alexandria for the last time; Cavafy really never left the city again. He took several trips at odd intervals, once visiting France and England and a number of times journeying across the Mediterranean to Athens, but his attachment to Alexandria was profound. When asked late in his life to move to Athens, Robert Liddell reports Cavafy replied: “Mohammed Aly Square is my aunt. Rue Cherif Pacha is my first cousin and the Rue de Ramleh my second. How can I leave them?” He lived with his mother until her death in 1899, when he was thirty-six, then with his brother Paul, taking in 1907 an apartment on the third floor of 10 Rue Lepsius. This apartment was to remain Cavafy’s residence until his death twenty-six years later.

In 1891, the death of Cavafy’s second eldest brother led him to seek a permanent position in the Irrigation Department, where he had been working part-time for three years. At the same time, he began a chronological listing of all of his poems to date—a list that shows how many he wrote but did not publish. From 1892, Cavafy’s life assumed the routine in which his poetry, work, and personality took their characteristic form. His hours as a bureaucrat were not long, from 8:30 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon, but the work was tedious and paid minimally; more often than not, Cavafy came to work as much as an hour late. He was reasonably dutiful, if often too scrupulous about his responsibility for all European correspondence; a “trifle overdeliberate” is the phrase cited in his record for 1913, and his subordinates complained that he was overly strict in requiring fastidiously correct records and translations. Cavafy recognized the cost to his art; Liddell quotes him from 1905: “How often during my work a fine idea comes to me, a rare image, and sudden ready-formed lines, and I’m obliged to leave them, because work can’t be put off. Then when I go home and recover a bit, I try to remember them, but they’re gone.” He never forgot that he was the son of a rich man. Nevertheless, records show that regular increases in pay and annual leave (finally reaching twelve weeks) marked his path to the position of subdirector of his section. He also supplemented his income by speculation on the Egyptian Stock Exchange, occasionally with great success.

Away from his job, Cavafy’s life centered on his apartment at 10 rue Lepsius, where friends and literary figures visited, and on his nocturnal activities in the cafés and shady quarters of Alexandria. While still living with his mother, Cavafy had bribed the servants or persuaded his brothers to ruffle up his bed so that it looked as if he had spent the night at home. Then he had to cross from the respectable section of the city where he lived with his mother to the area of taverns, bars, and brothels. Living alone after 1910, he enjoyed greater freedom; the old Greek quarter called Massalia, to which he had moved, gradually deteriorated, so that at some point a brothel occupied the ground floor in his building. Cavafy did not have a single long-standing relationship during his entire life; his closest friends, Pericles Anastassiades (as of 1895) and Alexander Singopoulos (whom he met in 1915), were both considerably younger. He did not dislike or avoid women, however, counting several among his closest friends.

Cavafy never published his most explicitly erotic poetry during his life. It is clear that he...

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