Constantine Cavafy

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Constantine P. Cavafy, also known as Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, or Kavaphes (Greek Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης) (April 29, 1863April 29, 1933) was a Greek poet who is among the 20th century's most important literary figures, though he is relatively little known in the English speaking world; he also worked as a journalist and civil servant.

Cavafy has been interpreted as a skeptic. In some of his poetry he toyed with the notions of Christianity, patriotism and heterosexuality, though he was not always comfortable with his role as a nonconformist. He published 154 poems; dozens more remained incomplete or sketchy. His most important poems were written after his fortieth birthday.

Biography

Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents. His father was a wealthy importer-exporter, however, when his father died in 1870, Cavafy and his family had to move to Liverpool, UK; he moved back to Alexandria in 1882.

The outbreak of riots there in 1885 meant the family had to move again, this time to Constantinople. In 1885 Cavafy moved back to Alexandria, where he lived for the rest of his life. He originally worked as a journalist, but then worked for the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works for thirty years. From 1891 to 1904 he published his poetry in broadsheet form for his close friends. He received acclaim mainly within the Greeks in Egypt. He was introduced to mainland Greek literary circles through a favourable review by Xenopoulos in 1903, but got little recognition, his style being very different from mainstream Greek poetry. Only 20 years later, after the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), a new generation of almost nihilist and suicidal poets (e.g. Kostas Karyotakis, Napoleon Lapathiotis) would find inspiration in Cavafy's work. He died in 1933.

Since his death, Cavafy's reputation has grown, and he is now considered to be one of the finest modern Greek poets.

Work

Cavafy was instrumental to the revival and recognition of Greek poetry both at home and abroad. His poems were typically concise but intimate portraits of real or literary individuals and societies that played a role in Greek culture. Uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals and nostalgia are some of the defining themes. A recluse, he was virtually unknown until late in his life. Besides his subjects, unconventional for the time, his poems also exhibit a skilled and versatile craftsmanship, which is almost completely lost in translation. His poetry is now taught at schools in Greece.

Cavafy's poem The God Abandons Antony (1911) was adapted by Leonard Cohen for the latter's song Alexandra Leaving (Ten New Songs, 2002) [1]. Where Cavafy's original focus was on the city of Alexandria, Cohen's version concerns a man's loss of a woman, Alexandra.

Bibliography

Selections of Cavafy's poems appeared only in pamphlets, privately printed booklets and broadsheets during his lifetime. The first publication, in book form, was

  • Ποιήματα (Poiimata, or 'Poems of C.P. Cavafy') in Alexandria, 1935.

The most effective translation of Cavafy into English is by Rae Dalven. Robert Liddell's biography is the best known one in English, and an evocative, minor masterpiece in the genre.

  • The Complete Poems of Cavafy translated by Rae Dalven
  • C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis
  • Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P.Cavafy translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis
  • Cavafy's Alexandria by Edmund Keeley
  • Cavafy: A Critical Biography by Robert Liddell

External links