C P Cavafy born 17 April 1863 (d. 1933)
Constantine P Cavafy was a major Greek poet who worked as a journalist and civil servant.
He has been called a sceptic and a neo-pagan. In his poetry he examines critically some aspects of Christianity, patriotism, and homosexuality, though he was not always comfortable with his role as a nonconformist. He published 154 poems; dozens more remained incomplete or in sketch form. His most important poetry was written after his fortieth birthday.
Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents, and was baptised 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. 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. 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. Years later, a new generation of almost nihilist Greek poets would find inspiration in Cavafy's work.
Cavafy 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 implies irony.
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. The work signifies that cultivation of fear of an invisible external enemy usually serves internal purposes and has recently been employed to draw parallels to the war on terror. Read this poem here
As well as his historical poems Cavafy wrote a large number of erotic and sensual poems filled with lyricism and emotion; inspired by recollection and remembrance. He also wrote many philosophical poems that mused on human states of being.
He died of cancer of the larynx on April 29, 1933, his 70th birthday.
Since his death, Cavafy's reputation has grown. One of his greatest supporters was the author E M Forster, who did much to promote awareness of Cavafy's work in the English-speaking world. He is now considered one of the finest modern Greek poets and his poetry is taught at schools in mainland Greece and throughout the world in Universities.
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