Poet of aftermath

Study for bust of Cavafy by Michalis Tombros (detail)
Study for bust of Cavafy by Michalis Tombros, translating dimensions (detail)

But there is one unfortunate difference between us [the British and the Greeks], one little difference. We Greeks have lost our capital – and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital.  — C.P. Cavafy to E. M. Forster, 1918

The proliferation of English translations of Cavafy’s poems in recent years has been remarkable, notable even for the work of a poet to whom recognition came belatedly and international acclaim largely after his death in 1933. The first extensive selection, by George Valassopoulo—presumed to be the only one seen by Cavafy himself—remained unpublished until 2009. John Mavrogordato’s versions, preferred by Cavafy’s executor, appeared in 1951; Rae Dalven’s volume, introduced by W.H. Auden, came out in 1961. Important collections were published in 1972 and 1975 by the team of Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Though a handful of selections appeared in the interim, until the late 1990s most Anglophone readers and poets knew Cavafy, if they knew him at all, through Dalven or Keeley and Sherrard.

As the Cavafy archive, under the ownership of G.P. Savidis and later his son Manuel, has made available “repudiated” and “unfinished” poems excluded by the poet from his authorized corpus, this material, along with Cavafy’s growing influence on a new generation of writers, has stimulated a cottage industry in Cavafy translation. Penn’s library now holds volumes of Cavafy in English by at least seventeen translators, including high-profile projects from Aliki Barnstone and Daniel Mendelsohn in the past few years.

Two biographical facts form the données for Cavafy’s poetic development. One is his homosexuality. The second, less often remarked today, is the collapse of his wealthy family’s fortune and their subsequent impoverishment. Though born in Alexandria, Cavafy spent formative adolescent years in England—which, on the failure of the family business, he was forced to leave. He was taken in by relatives in Constantinople, while his elder brothers looked for work in Alexandria and sent what money they could. Food was not always plentiful.

Returning to Alexandria after almost three years to live in his widowed mother’s house, Constantine would spend the rest of his working life in a minor post in the Anglo-Egyptian civil bureaucracy. His mother’s family, aristocratic Phanariot Greeks settled in Constantinople since the 17th century, had included a Prince of Samos and an archbishop of Caesarea. On his father’s side were prosperous and cosmopolitan merchants; the family firm was one of the largest international brokers of Egyptian grain and cotton. The youngest of six surviving children, whose literary bent was encouraged early, Cavafy may never have expected to need to earn a living; his brothers had intended to make him financially independent. Certainly he never forgot that he was a rich man’s son. Some writers have blamed the business failure on mismanagement by the family, but political and macroeconomic forces also played a role, as rising nationalist feeling undermined the international trading monopoly granted to Egyptian Greeks by the French prior to 1840. The impact on young Constantine was profound.

The youthful years spent as a lodger in Constantinople were in one sense fruitful for him. Away from his mother’s eye, he often roamed the city after dark and probably had his first homosexual experiences there. Once back in Alexandria, he made nocturnal pilgrimages to disreputable quarters of the city to seek pleasure, while by day he attempted, at least for some time, to maintain a dignified social position as the scion of a once-great house. It took many years, however, before he became intellectually reconciled to Alexandria. His cosmopolitan sensibility chafed under its cultural provincialism, and he missed the freedom offered by large and anonymous cities.

Cavafy’s early poetry was derivative of Romantic and Symbolist models and has held little interest for later readers. It was not until after the age of forty that he developed the method that would yield the poems for which he’s known today. Critic Peter Bien offered a concise summary as early as 1964. Cavafy, he wrote,

perceived that his sexual decadence was congruent with his and his family’s social and economic decline, and that this personal situation was in turn congruent with the decline of the local Greek community as a whole; furthermore that in broader perspective his situation bore analogy to the ups and downs of Greek fortunes in Alexandria over a period of two millennia, to the decline of Hellenism as a civilizing force in numerous other centers, and (implicitly) to the weary, decadent status of European civilization in general. Cavafy now had at his fingertips an expanding series of equivalent substitutions, any of which could be utilized poetically to symbolize any or all of the others. [1]

If we read “sexual decadence” to refer to the mature poet’s recollection of bygone vigor and pleasures, rather than to a sense of moral decay, the passage holds up fairly well. C. M. Bowra, Edmund Keeley and others long ago noted that historical Alexandria and the Hellenic world offered Cavafy the materials for a modernist “mythic method” analogous to that described and used by Eliot as well as by Yeats, Joyce, and Pound. That method weaves what the poet called his “erotic,” “historical,” and “philosophical” poems—as well as the modern and the ancient city—into a single fabric.

By midcentury when Dalven’s translations appeared, the Western intellectual mood had moved, as Bien suggests, from the disgust of Pound’s “old bitch gone in the teeth” through the various interwar utopian impulses to the ennui of Beckett and of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. This was a fertile climate for the recognition of Cavafy’s undecorated and dis-enchanted poetics, as well as for the dramatic irony with which he so often leads the reader to a jaundiced view of human striving—whether for personal glory, political power, or merely enduring happiness.

W.H. Auden, in his introduction to Dalven’s translations, wrote that several of his own poems would not have been written had he not read Cavafy. By the 1980s, with the rise of gay pride and the gay rights movement, followed by the devastation of the AIDS epidemic, Cavafy’s influence on American poets had become more overt; his frank if chaste depiction of homosexual encounters—along with the self-justifying attitude toward sensuous pleasure in many poems—now became the salient aspect of his literary legacy. James Merrill published translations of three Cavafy poems; in the early nineties Mark Doty’s popular and prizewinning collection My Alexandria contained poems that used the title template of Cavafy’s “Days of 1903” and “Days of 1896”—as, a few years later, did Marilyn Hacker’s Squares and Courtyards.

After the attacks on the World Trade Center and the ensuing costly wars, the resonance for American cultural hegemony of Cavafy’s remark to Forster about “losing your capital” has become more apparent. But the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and the deep recession that followed have, perhaps, created the most receptive conditions for readers to appreciate Cavafy’s unified project. Not since the 1930s have so many Americans seen their material security unexpectedly threatened or destroyed by forces beyond their control. As was true of survivors of the Depression, recent economic events have affected attitudes toward risk and called into question traditional American assumptions about the value of individual achievement and the rewards for hard work.

How should one live in aftermath—of financial ruin, of bereavement, of physical decline, of cultural eclipse? This question haunts Cavafy’s poems; it provokes us to consider what, in fact, matters in life.

In a timely and culturally significant action, the Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation announced near the end of last year that it had purchased the Cavafy archive from the Savidis family, who had been entrusted with its care and development by Cavafy’s executors. The collection will remain in Greece, while broader scholarly and public access is anticipated.


[1] Peter Bien, Constantine Cavafy [Columbia Essays on Modern Writers] (New York: Columbia University Press, 1964), 19.