C. P. Cavafy
Constantine Cavafy was born Konstantínos Pétrou
Kaváfis in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863, the ninth child of
Constantinopolitan parents. His father died in 1870, leaving the family poor.
Cavafy's mother moved her children to England, where the two eldest sons
took over their father's business. Their inexperience caused the ruin of the
family fortunes, so they returned to a life of genteel poverty in
Alexandria. The seven years that Constantine Cavafy spent in Englandfrom
age nine to sixteenwere important to the shaping of his poetic
sensibility: he became so comfortable with English that he wrote his first
verse in his second language.
After a brief education in London and Alexandria, he moved with his
mother to Constantinople, where they stayed with his grandfather and two
brothers. Although living in great poverty and discomfort, Cavafy wrote his
first poems during this period, and had his first love affairs with other
men. After briefly working for the Alexandrian newspaper and the Egyptian
Stock exchange, at the age of twenty-nine Cavafy took up an appointment as a
special clerk in the Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Worksan
appointment he held for the next thirty years. Much of his ambition during
these years was devoted to writing poems and prose essays.
Cavafy had an unusually small social circle. He lived with his mother
until her death in 1899, and then with his unmarried brothers. For most of
his mature years Cavafy lived alone. Influential literary relationships
included a twenty-year acquaintance with E. M. Forster. The poet himself
identified only two love affairs, both apparently brief. His one intimate,
long-standing friendship was with Alexander Singopoulos, whom Cavafy
designated as his heir and literary executor when he was sixty years old,
ten years before his death.
Cavafy remained virtually unrecognized in Greece until late in his
career. He never offered a volume of his poems for sale during his lifetime,
instead distributing privately printed pamphlets to friends and relatives.
Fourteen of Cavafy's poems appeared in a pamphlet in 1904; the
edition was enlarged in 1910. Several dozens appeared in subsequent years in
a number of privately printed booklets and broadsheets. These editions
contained mostly the same poems, first arranged thematically, and then
chronologically. Close to one-third of his poems were never printed in any
form while he lived.
In book form, Cavafy's poems were first published
without dates before World War II and reprinted in 1949.
PÍÍMATA (The Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy) appeared
posthumously in 1935 in Alexandria. The only evidence of public recognition
in Greece during his later years was his receipt, in 1926, of the Order of
the Phoenix from the Greek dictator Pangalos.
Perhaps the most original and influential Greek poet of the 20th century, his
uncompromising distaste for the kind of rhetoric common among his
contemporaries and his refusal to enter into the marketplace may have
prevented him from realizing all but a few rewards for his genius. He
continued to live in Alexandria until his death in 1933, from cancer of the
larynx. It is recorded that his last motion before dying was to draw a
circle on a sheet of blank paper, and then to place a period in the middle