Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1157

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.

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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 suffered some guilt concerning his homosexuality, perhaps in part because of his genteel background and his desire to maintain a certain social standing. A secretive man, an engaging poseur, Cavafy was extremely vain, about both his looks (cultivating his boyish demeanor past middle age) and his literary reputation, which he often urged others to spread, but he was also a lively and informed conversationalist. His method of distributing his poetry, with its calculated air of mystery, suggests the mixture of arrogance and reticence which characterized both his life and his work. Cavafy died on his seventieth birthday from cancer of the larynx and was buried in the family plot in the Greek cemetery in Alexandria.

Biography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573

Constantine P. Cavafy (kah-VAH-fee) was born on April 17, 1863, in Alexandria, Egypt, the youngest of seven brothers born to Peter-John Ioannou Cavafy and Haricleia Georgaki Photiades. Alexandria, named for its founder, Alexander the Great, was to be Cavafy’s home and a primary source for his poetry for almost all of his life.

The Cavafys were a rich Greek commercial family; the father held British and Greek citizenship, as did his children. Cavafy’s father and mother both came from Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey); Cavafy was to claim an ancestry leading back to the Greeks who rose to high positions under the Turkish empire. However, the family fortune was lost, and after Cavafy’s father died, his mother took her younger children to England, where her elder sons were running what was left of the family business. Cavafy had some English schooling, so his English was excellent; he also knew French and Italian well and spoke a little Arabic. The family business eventually collapsed, and after five years in England, the Cavafys returned to Alexandria, where they lived in a kind of genteel poverty, no longer among the leading Greek families.

In 1881, as the result of antiforeign riots in Alexandria, the Cavafys fled to Istanbul, where the mother’s family still resided. Here, too, they lived poorly, with some help from the mother’s relatives and money sent by the elder brothers, who had gone back to Alexandria. In 1885, Cavafy’s mother and her other sons also returned. Cavafy worked as a journalist and a broker to provide some financial support for his family.

From this point, Cavafy identified himself as a Greek in citizenship as well as in culture, albeit a Greek who regarded Alexandria as his home. He lived with his mother until her death and then lived with two brothers successively; after the departure of the last brother for Europe in 1908, Cavafy lived alone for the remainder of his life, the last of his immediate family. In 1889, he began working, without pay, as a clerk in the irrigation section of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works; after about two and a half years, he began to be paid, although his position had to be renewed periodically. Nevertheless, he served thirty years, receiving regular pay increases and praises for his work.

All this time he was writing articles and poems, although he destroyed most of his poetry, especially the earlier pieces. He found his real poetic voice rather late, and, as a result, his collected, mature poetry is not extensive. Instead of publishing his poetry in books, he printed his poems in newspapers and periodicals, later making up small pamphlets and broadsheets of his works and circulating them among his friends. Despite this limited circulation and the fact that the first collection of his poems was not published in book form until two years after his death, his reputation as a poet grew. Although his acceptance in Greece itself was slow, in time he was recognized as a major poet not only in Alexandria but also in Greece. He was introduced to the English-speaking world by the novelist E. M. Forster.

In 1932, Cavafy was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. He went to Athens for treatment, where the doctors performed a tracheotomy, and as a result he was unable to speak. He returned to Alexandria, the city he loved so much, where he died on April 29, 1933, twelve days after his seventieth birthday.

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