World Literature

Constantine Cavafy

 

BORN: 1863, Alexandria, Egypt

DIED: 1933, Alexandria, Egypt

NATIONALITY: Egyptian, Greek

GENRE: Poetry

MAJOR WORKS:

‘‘Waiting for the Barbarians’’ (1904)

‘‘The City’’ (1910)

‘‘Ithaca’’ (1911)

‘‘Exiles’’ (1914)

 

 

Constantine Cavafy. © Margot Granitsas / The Image Works

 

Overview

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 symbolist and decadent movements in late-nineteenth-century European literature. They often express the melancholy typical of fin de si'cle (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, Cavafy 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.

 

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.

Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-1949): Maeterlinck was a Belgian playwright who received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1911.

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.

 

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.’’

 

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.

The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1938), a poem by Nikos Kazantzakis. This epic poem continues the adventures of Homer's classic character Odysseus.

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.

 

Responses to Literature

1. 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?

2. 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?

3. ‘‘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.

4. Read the poem ‘‘Waiting for the Barbarians’’ and discuss the poem’s relevance in today’s society.

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

‘‘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.

Smith, William Jay. The Streaks of the Tulip: Selected Criticism. New York: Delacorte Press, 1954.