The Unfinished Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

C. P. Cavafy published few poems in his lifetime, choosing instead to circulate individually printed copies among friends. A 1919 essay, “The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy” by E. M. Forster, introduced Cavafy to readers of English, but the poet remained little known until a 1951 translation of his works by John Mavrogordato. Since then, Cavafy’s reputation has grown, and he has become one of the most highly respected and widely translated poets of modern Greece. This posthumous success fulfills Cavafy’s belief that his poetry would be read by future generations, who would value his works for more than merely historical reasons.

Cavafy lived in Alexandria as a child, but the death of his father, a prominent figure in the export business, precipitated a crisis. Hoping to safeguard the remnants of their estate, Cavafy’s mother moved the family to England, where Cavafy attended school for a number of his impressionable years. The family returned to Alexandria after a series of poor investments left its members in poverty. Cavafy labored most of his life as a mid-level bureaucrat in his beloved native city, spending the latter decades of his life in an apartment above a brothel. The loss of social advantage and prestige created in Cavafy a deep appreciation for the difficulties faced by others in similar circumstances. His homosexuality added secrecy and disquiet to the difficulties he faced as a son and as an adult.

Cavafy produced a “canon” of only 154 poems in his lifetime, writing at a slow pace and frequently revising poems several times over a period of years. Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy’s Collected Poems (2009) includes additional works that he repudiated when winnowing his early poems and others that he left unpublished, all compositions that have not previously appeared in English. In the introduction to The Unfinished Poems, Mendelsohn describes the discovery and editing processes that led to his translations. In Cavafy’s last days, the poet discussed some twenty-five poems he hoped to complete before his death. No copies of these drafts came to light until 1963, when Cavafy editor George Savidis (a noted Greek poet in his own right) discovered them, as well as additional completed poems that Cavafy had held back from publication. Savidis published a 1968 collection of the latter, although thirty well-developed drafts remained unavailable to the public until Renata Lavagnini, a skilled textual critic, edited a scholarly compilation titled Ateli priimata, 1918-1932 (1994). Even though Lavagnini spent decades arriving at the best possible renditions of Cavafy’s manuscripts, she referred to her constructs as “last” rather than “final” forms. The Unfinished Poems contains the first translations of these works into English.

Cavafy dated successive versions of his works and noted the circumstances of their composition, providing Lavagnini with exceptionally clear and well-organized resources. In addition, Cavafy frequently added comments clarifying the provisional status of drafts. Mendelsohn’s notes itemize the number of sheets of paper in the folders and describe changes in the texts as they evolved. In selections for which Cavafy revised drafts numerous times, variant linesand in some cases entire variant versionsare reproduced. The notes also cover the poet’s background reading, quotations from sources, descriptions of relevant events in the author’s life, and lists of additional poems on related subjects.

As a product of the Greek diaspora, Cavafy developed a unique style that evolved from his choice to remain in Alexandria, a location removed from mainstream Greek literary influences. Changes in the Greek language during the late nineteenth century also created an opportunity for the youthful poet. As he began writing, a “high,” or classical, form of Greek known as katharevousa was favored in literary, educational, and governmental circles, while the vernacular, or demotic, language was used in everyday affairs. Poets writing in Greek used katharevousa almost exclusively until artistic sensibilities changed and poetry in the demotic came into vogue. Among Greek poets of the era, Cavafy...

(The entire section is 1730 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 14 (March 16, 2009): 38.

The Boston Globe, June 7, 2009, p. C5.

Harper’s Magazine 318, no. 1908 (May, 2009): 71.

The Nation 289, no. 4 (August 3, 2009): 27-30.

New Criterion 27, no. 8 (April, 2009): p. 44.

The New Republic 240, no. 10 (June 17, 2009): 39-45.

The New York Times Book Review, April 19, 2009, p. 19.

The New Yorker 85, no. 6 (March 23, 2009): 70-75.

Publishers Weekly 256, no. 11 (March 16, 2009): 44.

World Literature Today 83, no. 5 (September/October, 2009): 69-70.