The Magazine

Greek Bearing Gift

Constantine Cavafy, the tortured bard of Alexandria.

May 5, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 32 • By JOHN SIMON
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Canon

The Original One Hundred and Fifty-Four Poems

by Constantine Cavafy

Translated by Stratis Haviaras

Center for Hellenic Studies, 465 pp., $24.95

Is there a poet more translated into English than the Alexandrian Greek Constantine Cavafy? Rainer Maria Rilke comes closest, and behind him Pablo Neruda. This despite modern Greek being a language much less known abroad than German or Spanish. Even his name had to be adapted by himself for us foreigners into C.P. Cavafy from the Greek Konstantinos Petrou Kabaphes, which would fall like lead on Greekless ears.

Yet Cavafy exists in eight more or less complete English versions, the six in my possession still in print, the most recent, Stratis Haviaras's The Canon my subject here. Cavafy's influence on Anglophone literati has been impressive, as several have acknowledged in writing. Consider the roster: E.M. Forster, W.H. Auden, Lawrence Durrell, Stephen Spender, James Merrill, Paul Muldoon, Christopher Middleton, Peter Porter, Roy Fuller, Rachel Hadas, and Duane Michaels. I would like to add France's Marguerite Yourcenar, painting's David Hockney, and South Africa's J.M. Coetzee, whose novel Waiting for the Barbarians takes its title from Cavafy's best known poem. In Greece, every major poet is in Cavafy's debt, notably the Nobel laureate George Seferis and the remarkable Iannis Ritsos.

What makes Cavafy internationally famous? (Note also that Bartlett's Familiar Quotations contains a goodly number of quotations from him.) To begin with, whatever the subject of his poems, their tone, the sensibility behind them, is a thoroughly cosmopolitan one, as Cavafy's life bears out.

Born into a prosperous Greek Orthodox merchant family in Alexandria in 1863, he was the youngest of nine children. In 1872, upon his father's death, the family, in straitened circumstances, moved to Liverpool, where the import-export firm had an office; after three years, another move took them to London for a further four. The company went bust, but not before Constantine developed considerable skill in English, adopted English manners and, apparently, even a lifelong slight British accent in his Greek.

For the next five years mother Charikleia and several of her brood lived in Alexandria, where Constantine attended a school of commerce. Political unrest and British bombardment drove Charikleia and a few sons to Constantinople and the home of her rich, civilized diamond-merchant father.

In England Cavafy read Shakespeare, Wilde, and Browning, whose dramatic monologues he later emulated. In Constantinople (1882-85) he got deeply involved with Hellenistic and Byzantine history as well as the Greek classics. Good at languages, he read Dante in Italian and perused much contemporary English and French poetry, notably the Parnassians and Symbolists.

Back in Alexandria from 1885, he continued to write poetry in Greek and prose in English. He switched citizenship from British to Greek, and kicked around in various professions--journalist, broker, Cotton Stock Exchange employee, and, finally, apprentice in the Irrigation Office of the Ministry of Public Works, where he was to become a clerk for 30 years until his retirement.

With various brothers (most of whom died young), Constantine did some traveling, sometimes to Athens, but also to London and Paris. On top of Latin and classical Greek, he was fluent in English, French, Italian, and Arabic, and so useful to the Irrigation Office as to earn afternoons off for the stock exchange and homosexual pursuits. He did well at both, and his salary grew as well, though he remained, as a Greek citizen, in title only "provisional clerk."

In a diary, Cavafy described desperate but futile attempts to rid himself of his erotic passions. By 1903, on the basis of magazine publication, his poems were becoming noticed and written about in Greece. Having previously lived with his cherished mother, upon her death he moved in with his brother Paul. When Paul moved to Paris in 1908, Cavafy became sole owner of the modest flat. During World War I he met E.M. Forster, who made him known to English writers and readers.

By 1924 there were intense discussions about Cavafy's work in Athens and Alexandria, T.S. Eliot published him in the Criterion, Dimitri Mitropoulos was setting him to music, and he became friends with Nikos Kazantzakis. Come 1928, much was published about him everywhere; the Italian Futurist Marinetti called on him and, later, wrote about him. The next year Forster returned to Alexandria, and sang his praises in interviews.