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.
Further Reading on Constantine P. Cavafy
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).
Additional Biography Sources
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.