Constantine P. Cavafy

Summary

Constantine Cavafy (Alexandria, 29 April 1863 (d.d.) – 29 April 1933) was a Greek poet who is considered one of the most important poets of the modern era. He was born and lived in Alexandria, Egypt and is therefore often referred to as the Alexandrian. He published poems, and dozens remain as drafts. His most important works he created after the age of 40.

Family origin

Konstantinos Cavafy was born on 29 April 1863 in Alexandria, where his parents settled after leaving Constantinople in 1850. He was the ninth child of Petros – Ioannis Cavafy (1814-1870), a cotton merchant, and Chariklia Fotiadis, who belonged to an old Fanarian family of merchants and communal commissioners of Constantinople. Both these elements, the father”s commercial status and the mother”s nobility, contributed significantly to the formation of the poet”s character.

In Egypt

The Cavafy family rents a large house owned by Stefanos Zizinia near the Eastern Port and on the Consul”s Square, now Mohamed Ali. Peter Cavafy imported textiles from Manchester and may have exported grain, cotton, and raw buffalo hide. In Minia, Upper Egypt, he establishes a branch of his business where he exploits the grain of the region. Mr. Cavafy also worked for 30 years in the Egyptian irrigation company. While in Egypt the family has more children. In 1851 the second son Peter Ioannis was born, in 1853 Aristides, in 1853, and in 1855, Helen, the only daughter of the family, who died at eight months old. Next came Alexander, Paul, who dies at eleven months, in 1860 another boy whom they will also name Paul, in 1861 John, and in 1863 Constantine. In 1860 they move to Serif Street on the aristocratic Cotton Street. The family”s standard of living is high: “Peter Ioannou Cavafy”s furniture, cars, silverware and glassware were in a glaze that was then rare among the Greeks”. For Chirka, Cavafy”s trading house between 1864 and 1870 was among the top four or five in turnover. In 1869 Peter Cavafy was decorated with the 3rd Class Medzidier for his contribution to the development of trade and industry. On 10 August 1870, the poet”s father dies at the age of fifty-six. In Alexandria Cavafy was taught English, French and Greek by a tutor and completed his education for a year or two at the Greek School of Alexandria.

Transition to England

After the death of his father and the gradual dissolution of the family business, the family moved to England (Liverpool and London) where they remained until 1876. Before leaving Egypt they moved their movable property to an apartment in Ramlion Street with more affordable rent. In 1877 the company was finally liquidated. During his stay there, we do not know whether he attended a school or received his education through private lessons.

Return and transfer to Istanbul

In 1879 he returned from England and settled in the apartment of Ramliou Street. He attends the Mercantile-Practical School of Constantine Pantazis” Hermes.

In Paris and Athens

In 1897 he travelled to Paris and in 1903 to Athens, without leaving Alexandria for thirty years. Cavafy began to work, not yet systematically, changing various occupations, such as journalist at the newspaper “Tilegraphos” (1886), broker at the Cotton Exchange (1888) and unpaid secretary at the Bureau of Irrigation (1889-1892) where he was hired as a temporary paid employee in 1892 and worked there permanently for thirty years, until 1922, reaching the rank of deputy head of department.

In 1932, Cavafy, ill with cancer of the larynx, went for treatment in Athens, where he stayed for some time, receiving a warm sympathy from his many admirers. On his return to Alexandria, however, his condition deteriorated. He was admitted to the Greek Community Hospital, where he died on 29 April 1933]], the day he reached the age of 70.

A short autobiographical note by the poet:

I am a Constantinopolitan by birth, but I was born in Alexandria – in a house on Serif Street – when I was very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Then I visited that country a great deal, but for a short time. I also stayed in France. In my youth I dwelt for more than two years in Constantinople. In Greece it is many years that I have not been there. My last job was as a clerk in a government office dependent on the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works. I know English, French and a little Italian.

Today his poetry is not only prevalent in Greece, but has also taken a prominent place in all European poetry, following the translations of his poems initially into French, English, German and then into many other languages.

The body of Kavadi poems includes: The 154 poems he identified himself (the so-called Recognized poems); the 37 Declared poems, most of them juvenile, in romantic clear verse, which he later disclaimed; the Hidden poems, i.e. 75 poems found finished in his papers; and the 30 Incomplete poems, found in his papers without having taken their final form. He printed himself in 1904 a small collection entitled Poems, in which he included the poems: Voices, Desires, Candles, An Old Man, Bondage, The Souls of Old Men, The First Step, Interruption, Thermopylae, The Windows, Waiting for the Barbarians, Infidelity, and Achilles” Horses. The collection, in 100-200 copies, was privately published.

In 1910 he reprinted his collection, adding seven more poems: Trojans, Monotony, The Funeral of Sarpedon, The Escort of Dionysus, King Demetrius, The Steps, and Utos there. And this collection was circulated by him to people he valued. His last recognized poem is On the outskirts of Antioch, published in 1933, and his first was The Walls (1897).

In 1935, the first complete edition of his (154) Poems was published in Athens, edited by Rika Segopoulou, which was immediately out of print. Two more reprints were made after 1948.

The poet would painstakingly work on each verse, sometimes for years, before publishing it. In several of his publications there are corrections in his hand, and often when he re-edited his poems he printed them corrected.

The thematic cycles of Cavafy”s poetry

He had classified his poems into three categories: historical, philosophical and erotic or sensual.

Dividing his poetic work into philosophical, historical and voluptuous, his poems reflect the erotic element, his philosophical thinking and his historical knowledge. With regard to his historical poems in particular, we must bear in mind that he composed them while experiencing the atmosphere of a city that in its Hellenistic past became a melting pot of peoples and a crossroads of cultures. His heroes are well-known historical figures or figments of his imagination, and the poet narrates in the characters he creates human attitudes marked by the transience of success and the fate that neutralises the human will.

Cities of the eastern Mediterranean -especially Alexandria, as mentioned above- are the place where the incidents of the poems take place and according to their content they are characterized by contemporary researchers of Kavadi poetics as pseudo-historical, historical and historiographical. The diversity among his historical poems was pointed out by the poet himself, but without giving them a special name. The term “pseudo-historical” was coined by Seferis to distinguish with it the poems that use historical material metaphorically, allegorically creating false stories. I. M. Panagiotopoulos, in turn, introduced the term “historical fiction”. This is where he includes historical poems, whose fictional characters are involved in a historical context that invests the plot. Michalis Pieris considered the term “historiographical” necessary for poems born from direct historical material.Finally, the erotic or sensual poems of Cavafy”s hedonic cycle are memories of realized or unrealized questions, expressing his peculiar eroticism, about which several doubts have been raised.

The form

The language and the lyrical form of Cavafy”s poems were peculiar and innovative for the time. Their main characteristics are:

The poet

Cavafy works mainly through symbols. His art is the collection of archetypes, which give a fleeting allusive meaning to his speech. He draws memories from the past, and deposits them in the present, sometimes as a warning of things to come. Such is his relationship to the collective psyche and its contents that he is considered a precursor to the relationship of 20th century literature to the collective consciousness.

A particular element of his technique is a rare texture of directorial ability, similar to that found in prose or even theatrical writing. But another feature complementary to the above is his tendency, through his speech, to impersonate personas. This characteristic creates a layered poetry but also enigmaticity since it is often indistinguishable for the reader to recognize through which person the poet himself is speaking and with which person he identifies.

Its symbolic tendency is strong and is combined with a simple but timelessly topical language. The ironic mood, what has been called Kafkaesque irony, is combined with the tragic nature of reality to make it socially didactic, and its hedonistic orientations are mixed with social indications. Undoubtedly, it is not easy to clearly delineate Cavafy”s poetry into thematic circles. History mingles with the senses and contemplation in a single entity, what Cavafy himself presumably identifies as a ”single Cavafy cycle”, but in each separate case, in the very next verse, the alternation vindicates those who have characterized Cavafy”s poetry as protean.

Cavafy”s apartment in the once infamous Atarin district of Alexandria has since been turned into a museum. The museum features several of Cavafy”s sketches and original manuscripts, and contains many photographs and portraits of Cavafy.

Digital archive ERT

Sources

  1. Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης
  2. Constantine P. Cavafy
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