Cavafy was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents, and was
baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. His father was a prosperous
importer-exporter who had lived in England in earlier years and acquired
British nationality. After his father died in 1870, Cavafy and his
family settled, for a while, in Liverpool, UK. Cavafy moved back to
Alexandria in 1877, after the family faced financial problems in the
crash of 1876.
Disturbances in Alexandria in 1882 caused the family again temporarily
to move, this time to Constantinople. When a revolt against Anglo-French
control of Egypt broke out in Alexandria precipating the 1882
Anglo-Egyptian War, Alexandria was bombarded by an English fleet and the
family apartment at Ramli was burned. In 1885, Cavafy returned to
Alexandria, where he lived for the rest of his life. He worked first as
a journalist, then for the British-run Egyptian Ministry of Public Works
for thirty years. (Egypt was a British protectorate until 1926.) From
1891 to 1904 he published his poetry in broadsheet form, only for his
close friends, receiving whatever acclaim mainly within the Greek
community in Alexandria. 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 then-mainstream
Greek poetry. Only 20 years later, after the Greek defeat in the
Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), a new generation of almost nihilist poets
(e.g. Karyotakis) would find inspiration in Cavafy's work. He died of
cancer of the larynx on April 29, 1933, his 70th birthday.
A biographical note written by Cavafy reads as follows:
"I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria—at a
house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my
childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country as an adult,
but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my
adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many
years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at
a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know
English, French, and a little Italian."
It is generally accepted that Cavafy was homosexual and gay themes
appear in a number of his poems.
Since his death, Cavafy's reputation has grown. He is now considered one
of the finest modern Greek poets. His poetry is now taught at schools in
mainland Greece and throughout the world in Universities.
In 1996 Yannis Smaragdis made a movie about his life. Unfortunately this
film is only available in Greece in a non subtitled version.
The manuscript of the poem "Keriá" (Κεριά)
manuscript for his poem "That's The Man" (Outos Ekeinos) - 1909Cavafy
has been instrumental in the revival and recognition of Greek poetry
both at home and abroad. His poems are, typically, concise but intimate
evocations of real or literary figures and milieux that have played a
role in Greek culture. Uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures,
the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality, and a
fatalistic existential nostalgia are some of the defining themes.
Besides his subjects, unconventional for the time, his poems also
exhibit a skilled and versatile craftsmanship, which is almost
completely lost in translation. Cavafy was a perfectionist, obsessively
refining every single line of his poetry. His mature style was a free
iambic form, free in the sense that verses rarely rhyme and are usually
from 10 to 17 syllables. In his poems, the presence of rhyme usually
Cavafy drew his themes from personal experience, along with an enormous
knowledge of history, especially of the Hellenistic era. Many of his
poems are either pseudo-historical, or seemingly historical, or
accurately, but quirkily, historical.
One of Cavafy's most important works is his 1904 poem "Waiting for the
Barbarians". This work, in the person of a disingenuous Byzantine
narrator, cynically explores the view that cultivating fear of an
invisible external enemy usually serves internal purposes. Parallels
have been drawn between the poem's message and the war on terror. In
1911, he wrote Ithaca, inspired by the Homeric return journey of
Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey. The poem's
theme is that the enjoyment of the journey of life, and the increasing
maturity of the soul as that journey continues, is all the traveler can
Cavafy divides his own work into three categories:
These poems are mainly inspired by the Hellenistic era with Alexandria
at primary focus. Other poems originate from Helleno-romaic antiquity
and the Byzantine era. Mythological references are also present. The
periods chosen are mostly of decline and decadence (eg Trojans); his
heroes facing the final end.
The sensual poems are filled with lyricism and emotion; inspired by
recollection and remembrance. The past and former actions, sometimes
along with the vision for the future consist the muse of Cavafy in
writing these poems.
Also called instructive poems they are divided into poems with
consultations to poets and poems that deal with other situations such as
closure (for example, "The walls"), debt (for example, "Thermopylae"),
and human dignity (for example, "The God Abandons Antony").
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