BORN: 1863, Alexandria, Egypt
DIED: 1933, Alexandria, Egypt
NATIONALITY: Egyptian, Greek
“Waiting for the Barbarians” (1904)
“The City” (1910)
Constantine Cavafy is considered the first modernist Greek poet. He revolutionized Greek poetry while highlighting clear affinities with Hellenistic poetry of the Alexandrian era.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Cosmopolitan Youth Constantine P. Cavafy was born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis in Alexandria, Egypt, to a Greek family. His father was a successful importer-exporter whose business led him frequently to England. When Cavafy's father died, the family moved to Liverpool, England. It was there that Cavafy began his poetic efforts. He took a liking to William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde and created verse in English. He was also fascinated by history, especially ancient Greek (Hellenistic) and ancient Roman (Byzantine) history; this fondness for ancient Greece and Rome figured prominently in Cavafy's poetry.
Cavafy's older brothers ultimately bankrupted the family business through mismanagement. Cavafy's mother
took him to Constantinople (now Istanbul), where they lived for three years. Then his mother returned to her Greek homeland with Cavafy and several of his siblings; his older brothers remained in Alexandria. The adolescent Cavafy continued writing poems, but he eventually joined his older brothers in Alexandria and found work as a newspaper correspondent.
A Private Poet In 1885, when Cavafy returned to Alexandria, he obtained a position as a clerk of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works. He stayed at the ministry for the next thirty years, eventually becoming its assistant director. Cavafy was an obscure poet, living in relative seclusion and publishing little of his work. He preferred to circulate his verse among friends. A short collection of his poetry was privately printed in the early 1900s. In 1933, eleven years after leaving the ministry, he died of cancer.
Works in Literary Context
Cavafy's early poems exhibit the influence of the symbol-ist and decadent movements in late-nineteenth-century European literature. They often express the melancholy typical of fin de siècle (end of the century) poetry. Cavafy later repudiated this self-consciously poetic quality for a spare, prosaic style, which he developed to perfection in his mature poems. Often called a poet of old age, denied his poetry displays of linguistic virtuosity, emphasizing instead his experience and perceptions stated with the greatest possible plainness. His language was flat and direct. He consciously avoided a dependence on metaphor and imagery, preferring a straightforward comment.
Classical Tragic Themes Cavafy drew upon the entire history of the Greek language, from its most elevated to its most vulgar forms. He did so to provide a simple reworking of a few tragic themes. Foremost among these themes is that of human mortality and the sense of beauty, frustration, and loss that derives from it.
Among his other major themes are art, politics, homosexuality, and the moral character and psychology of individuals. His poetry also displays a fatalistic existential nostalgia as well as an uncertainty about the future.
History and Politics with a Personal Vision Cavafy was an avid student of history, particularly ancient civilizations, and in a great number of poems he subjectively rendered life during the Greek and Roman empires. Most of his poems are set in the outland regions under Roman conquest during the declining years of the empire. They feature both historic characters, such as Nero and Julius Caesar, and fictional ones, often Greek poets and artisans who commemorate some recurring theme in Cavafy's ancient world. Among these themes are the vanity of worldly triumph, the transient nature of human life, and the tragedy of a precarious existence relieved only by transcendent moments of romantic passion. Cavafy called himself “an historical poet,” but his thematic concerns are nonetheless modern as well as being extremely personal.
In his poetry Cavafy was inspired by parallels between the modern age and that of the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman periods. George Seferis, among others, points out that in a Cavafy poem the past illuminates and illustrates the present, as well as documents the state of the poet's mind and spirit. Throughout the poetry, the hedonism of Rome comes to represent the pitfalls as well as the glorious moments of sensual indulgence, just as the new religion of Christianity represents an austere but satisfying alternative to the ultimate futility of a life based on eroticism. These opposing themes frequently arise in Cavafy's love poems, in which he portrays homosexual relationships without guilt or sentimentality.
Cavafy's most important poems, however, impart his personal vision on politics and history. In “Waiting for the Barbarians” for example, Cavafy documents the ironically enthusiastic response with which a civilized culture greeted insurgent barbarism. In “Ithaca” he conveys that the journey to one's destination is more important than the arrival, and in “The City” he warns that to leave one's city amounts to an unsuccessful escape from oneself.
Works in Critical Context
Cavafy has been recognized in Greece and the wider literary community as one of the great poets of the twentieth century. His poetry led to a revival of modern
Greek poetry as well as an upsurge in the international recognition of Greek poetry in general. Cavafy's reputation continued to grow after his death. His works are now taught in Greek schools and in universities throughout the world.
Critics often find Cavafy's value to reside in his particular tone of voice, which conveys a pagan sensitivity to physical pleasure and a painful sense of tragic futility. Some critics note the untranslatability of Cavafy's better elements, but his works have been translated by a number of prominent writers, including the American poets James Merrill and Robert Pinsky. W. H. Auden, who wrote an introduction to a translation of Cavafy's works, suggests that what is most distinctive about Cavafy's poetry is not what can be translated, but “a tone of voice, a personal speech.” Auden acknowledges Cavafy's influence on his own work, even though he only ever read him in translation because Auden did not know modern Greek.
“Waiting for the Barbarians” “Waiting for the Barbarians” is generally recognized as one of Cavafy's most accomplished and enduring creations. C. M. Bowra, in an essay for The Creative Experiment, states that in the poem, “Cavafy produces a real myth, a story which stands firmly in its own right and yet is rich in universal significance.” Kimon Friar in The New Republic writes, “Waiting for the Barbarians is deeply moving to those who understand the secret temptation in the hearts of free men to cast off their responsibilities and yield themselves to directing power.” Many critics have commented on the tragic message of the work, despite its comic touches. Renato Poggiolo, writing in Harvard Literary Bulletin, states of the poem, “What renders its ending really unhappy is that there is neither release nor relief, or more simply, that there is no ending at all.”
Responses to Literature
- Cavafy sets most of his poems in the ancient world. How does this choice impact the themes he is able to explore? Would he be able to explore the themes he has chosen as successfully in a modern setting?
- Cavafy lived an isolated and pained life, partly because of negative attitudes about homosexuality. How do you think this cultural isolation is reflected in his poetry?
- “The City” can be read as a warning that leaving your hometown will be an unsuccessful escape from yourself. Write a first-person story about leaving home that follows this sentiment.
- Read the poem “Waiting for the Barbarians” and discuss the poem's relevance in today's society.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Cavafy's famous contemporaries include:
Anton Chekhov (1860–1904): Chekhov was a Russian playwright and short-story writer whose innovations influenced the development of the modern short story.
Edith Wharton (1862–1937): Wharton was an American novelist known for chronicling the high society of her time.
Constantin Stanislavski (1863–1938): Stanislavski, a Russian actor and theater director, founded the school of modern realistic acting that continues to dominate theater to this day.
Henry Ford (1863–1947): This American entrepreneur and industrialist is credited with bringing modern production methods to the manufacture of automobiles.
Erik Karlfeldt (1864–1931): Karlfeldt was a Swedish poet of the symbolist school who was granted the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1931 after his death.
William Butler Yeats (1865–1939): Yeats was an Irish poet and dramatist widely considered one of the most important figures in twentieth-century literature.
“C(onstantine) P(eter) Cavafy (1863–1933).”Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Sharon K. Hall. Vol. 7. Detroit: Gale Research, 1982, pp. 151–65.
Forster, E. M. Pharos and Pharillon. Richmond, Surrey,U.K.: Hogarth Press, 1923.
Jusdanis, Gregory. The Poetics of Cavafy: Textuality, Eroticism, History. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Keeley, Edmund. Cavafy's Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.
Keeley, Edmund, and Peter Bien, eds. Modern Greek Writers. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.
Kolaitis, Memas. Cavafy as I Knew Him; with Twelve Annotated Translations of His Poems and a Translation of the “Golden Verses of Pythagoras”. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Kolaitis Dictionaries, 1980.
Liddell, Robert. Cavafy: A Biography. New York: Schocken Books, 1976.
Mellisinos, Stavros. Kavafy: The One String-Lyre Player. Athens: Melissinos, 1979.
Pinchin, Jane Lagoudis. Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977.
Plomer, William. Electric Delights. Boston: David R.Gondine, 1978.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Many of Cavafy's works are set in ancient Greece and Rome. Here are some other modern works set in the same period:
Count Belisarius (1938), a novel by Robert Graves. This novel is a fictionalized retelling of the life of a real Byzantine general who lived in the sixth century ce.
Quo Vadis (1895), a novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz. This historical novel centers around the love between a young Christian woman and a Roman nobleman during the time of the emperor Nero.
Constantine P. Cavafy
Constantine P. Cavafy
Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was the first modernist Greek poet. He revolutionized Greek poetry, but his work shows clear affinities with Hellenistic poetry of the Alexandrian era.
Constantine P. Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt. His father, a prosperous export merchant from Constantinople, died in 1870, and two years later the family moved to England. They returned to Alexandria in 1879 and, except for three years in Constantinople and brief visits to Athens and other cities, Cavafy spent the rest of his life there. Between 1892 and 1922 he supported himself in clerical and minor administrative posts in the Egyptian Ministry of Irrigation. He died in 1933 of cancer in Alexandria.
As a poet, Cavafy was an exceptionally meticulous, slow worker, completing to his satisfaction only 24 poems before he was 48 (when he believed that he had reached his poetic maturity) and only 154 before his death. Aside from occasional magazine publication, the poems were privately printed, and a collected edition was not available until 1935. A complete English translation did not appear until 1951.
In order to understand Cavafy, one must have some knowledge of Alexandria, for the spirit of that city and its history contributed much to Cavafy's poetry. Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C. and served as the capital of the Ptolemaic empire. It was the center of the Hellenistic world. It was particularly famous for the Mouseion (in effect a research university) and associated library, which may have had as many as 700,000 rolls (including Aristotle's library), the largest in the world. Euclid, Aristarchus of Samothrace, and Callimachus were among the great scholars who worked there.
In Alexandria differences of opinion were not only tolerated but encouraged. Gnosticism, Neoplatonism, Judaism, and Christianity all had followers here—traditionally St. Mark founded Christianity in Alexandria—and the population was an eclectic mixture, as it was again in Cavafy's day, of Greeks, Egyptians, Jews, and others. An indication of the curious blend of cultures and ideas in Alexandria was the local worship of Serapis (mentioned by Cavafy in his poems), a god whose characteristics showed traces of both Greek and Egyptian influences. The complex, always changing culture of Alexandria gave its citizens little sense of stability or permanence, and for that they turned to art, to the well crafted artifice of a poem.
For Cavafy, as for the ancient Alexandrians, permanence was principally the property of art, not civilization or nature. In this, he was undoubtedly influenced by Mallarmé and other symbolist poets, but the Alexandrian view surely had its influence as well. Cavafy's poems are often self-consciously antiquarian, dealing with obscure corners of history, and this trait he also shares with famous Alexandrian predecessors. Furthermore, like his predecessors, he created his own highly artificial poetic language, a mixture of demotic and purist Greek, deliberately employing archaisms and colloquialisms. Also like the poetry of the ancient Alexandrians, Cavafy's is less the result of sudden inspiration than the result of the most scrupulous craftsmanship. It is the poetry of a very learned, very intelligent man.
Most modernist poets did their greatest work in lyric poetry, but Cavafy turned to the elegiac epigram, which had been perfected by Callimachus and his contemporaries. The elegiac epigram was originally intended for inscriptions on funerary monuments, but the Alexandrians developed it into an objective, cool, and often ironic poetic form. Robert Browning achieved similar poetic effects in his dramatic monologues, and these certainly had their effect on Cavafy, but the primary influence seems, as always, to have been Alexandrian. One persistent theme in ancient elegiac epigrams, particularly in the highly regarded work of Strato, is homosexuality, and this is also a principal theme for Cavafy. Most of his best poems, in fact, which do not deal with episodes, real or imagined, from the Hellenistic world deal with homosexuality.
Cavafy is rarely concerned in his poetry with great figures and incidents which have altered history. He is instead concerned either with people and incidents of no historical importance or at best with people who lived on the edge of great events but who contributed little to them. One of Cavafy's central achievements lies in his ability to invest such individuals and events with emotional consequence and passion. Similar achievements can be found in the works of other Alexandrians.
Cavafy began, like his Alexandrian predecessors, as a relatively traditional or conventional poet, his work rhymed and metrically regular, but he later experimented with new verse patterns and free verse. Because of this experimentation and his highly personal and idiosyncratic use of Greek, he was able to transform thoroughly and revitalize Greek poetry. Modernist Greek poetry begins with Cavafy. But while acknowledging this fact, it must always be remembered that his poetry is essentially conservative in important respects: it represents in many ways a reawakening of certain aspects of the Alexandrian and Hellenistic culture Cavafy profoundly admired.
Cavafy's own epitaph might well be the concluding lines of his own "Epitaph for Antiochos." To be Greek, says Cavafy in this poem, is to have the best there is except for what belongs only to the gods.
Cavafy's poetic voice, as W. H. Auden pointed out, is one of the few that survive translation, and there have been three major translations of the poems, the first by John Mavrogordato (published 1951), the second by Rae Dalven (with a superb introduction by Auden, 1961), and the third—and by most accounts the best—by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (1975). Robert Lindell's Cavafy: A Critical Biography (1976) is a good source for factual information on Cavafy's life as well as commentary on the poetry. Among other studies which should be consulted are Edmund Keeley's Cavafy's Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress (1976) and Jane Lagoudis Pinchin's Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy (1976).
Kolaitis, Memas., Cavafy as I knew him: with 12 annotated translations of his poems and a translation of the Golden verses of Pythagoras, Santa Barbara, Calif. (1201 Alta Vista Rd., Santa Barbara 93103): Kolaitis Dictionaries, 1980.
Liddell, Robert, Cavafy: a biography, New York: Schocken Books, 1976, 1974.
Liddell, Robert, Cavafy: a critical biography, London: Duckworth, 1974. □