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About this poet

Constantine Cavafy was born Konstantínos Pétrou Kaváfis in Alexandria, Egypt, on April 29, 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 England—from age nine to sixteen—were 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 Works—an 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 on April 29, 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 of it.

Ithaka

C. P. Cavafy, 1863 - 1933

As you set out for Ithaka 
hope your road is a long one, 
full of adventure, full of discovery. 
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, 
angry Poseidon—don't be afraid of them: 
you'll never find things like that on your way 
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high, 
as long as a rare excitement 
stirs your spirit and your body. 
Laistrygonians, Cyclops, 
wild Poseidon—you won't encounter them 
unless you bring them along inside your soul, 
unless your soul sets them up in front of you. 

Hope your road is a long one. 
May there be many summer mornings when, 
with what pleasure, what joy, 
you enter harbors you're seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations 
to buy fine things, 
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony, 
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can; and may you visit many Egyptian cities 
to learn and go on learning from their scholars. 

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you're destined for. 
But don't hurry the journey at all. 
Better if it lasts for years, 
so you're old by the time you reach the island, 
wealthy with all you've gained on the way, 
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich. 
 
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey. 
Without her you wouldn't have set out. 
She has nothing left to give you now. 

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you. 
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, 
you'll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean. 

From C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Published by Princeton University Press. Copyright © 1975 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Appears with permission of Princeton University Press.

From C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Published by Princeton University Press. Copyright © 1975 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Appears with permission of Princeton University Press.

C. P. Cavafy

C. P. Cavafy

Constantine Cavafy was born Konstantínos Pétrou Kaváfis in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863 and was considered by many to be the most original and influential Greek poet of the 20th century.

by this poet

poem
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?
 
          The barbarians are due here today. 

Why isn't anything going on in the senate? 
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating? 

          Because the barbarians are coming today. 
          What's the point of senators making laws now?
poem
In part to verify a date,
and in part just to pass the time,
last night I picked up a volume
of Ptolemaic inscriptions and began reading.
Those endless poems of praise and flattery
all sound the same. All the men are brilliant,
great and good, mighty benefactors;
most wise in all their undertakings.
The same for
2
poem
At midnight, when suddenly you hear 
an invisible procession going by 
with exquisite music, voices, 
don't mourn your luck that's failing now, 
work gone wrong, your plans 
all proving deceptive—don't mourn them uselessly: 
as one long prepared, and full of courage, 
say goodbye to her, to Alexandria who is