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...
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