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As Good as Great Poetry Gets’

1.

Outside his poems Cavafy does not exist.” Seventy-five years after the death of “the Alexandrian” (as he is known in Greece), the early verdict of his fellow poet George Seferis—which must have seemed rather harsh in 1946, when the Constantine Cavafy who had existed in flesh and blood was still a living memory for many people—seems only to gain in validity. That flesh-and-blood existence was, after all, fairly unremarkable: a middling job as a government bureaucrat, a modest, even parsimonious routine, no great fame or recognition until relatively late (and even then hardly great), a private life of homosexual encounters kept so discreet that even today its content, as much as there was content, remains largely unknown to us.

All this—the mediocrity, the obscurity (whether intentional or not)—stands in such marked contrast to the poetry, with its haunted memories of seethingly passionate encounters in the present and its astoundingly rich imagination of the remote Greek past, from Homer to Byzantium, from Alexandria and Rome to barely Hellenized provincial cities in the Punjab, that it has been hard not to agree with Se-feris that the “real” life of the poet was, in fact, almost completely interior; and that outside that imagination and those memories, there was little of lasting interest.

As the man and everyone who knew him have passed into history, the contrast between the life and the art has made it easy to think of Cavafy in the abstract, as an artist whose work exists untethered to a specific moment in time. This trend has been given impetus by the two elements of his poetry for which he is most famous: his startlingly contemporary subject (one of his subjects, at any rate) and his appealingly straightforward style. Certainly there have always been many readers who appreciate the so-called historical poems, set in marginal Mediterranean locales and long-dead eras and tart with mondain irony and a certain weary stoicism. (“Ithaca gave you the beautiful journey; / without her you wouldn’t have set upon the road. / But now she has nothing left to give you,” he writes in what is perhaps his most famous evocation of ancient Greek culture, which tells us that the journey is always more important than the inevitably disappointing destination.)

But it is probably fair to say that Cavafy’s popular reputation currently rests almost entirely on the remarkably prescient way in which those other, “sensual” poems, as often as not set in the poet’s present, treat the ever-fascinating and pertinent themes of erotic longing, fulfillment, and loss; the way, too, in which memory preserves what desire so often cannot sustain. That the desire and longing were for other men only makes him seem more contemporary, more at home in our own times.

As for the style, it is by now a commonplace that Cavafy’s language, because it was so bare of common po-etic devices—image, simile, metaphor, specialized diction—is tantamount to prose. One of the first to make this observation was Seferis himself, during the same 1946 lecture at Athens in which he passed judgment on Cavafy’s life: “Cavafy stands at the boundary where poetry strips herself in order to become prose,” he remarked, although not without admiration. “He is the most anti-poetic (or a-poetic) poet I know.” Bare of its own nuances, that appraisal, and others like it, have inevitably filtered into the popular consciousness and been widely disseminated—not least because the idea of a plainspoken, wholly modern Cavafy, impatient with the frills and fripperies characteristic of his Belle Epoque youth, dovetails nicely with what so many see as his principal subject, one that seems to be wholly contemporary, too.

No one more than Cavafy, who studied history not only avidly but with a scholar’s respect for detail and meticulous attention to nuance, would have recognized the dangers of abstracting people from their historical surroundings; and nowhere is this more true than in the case of Cavafy himself. To be sure, his work—the best of it, at any rate, which is as good as great poetry gets—is indeed timeless in the way we like to think that great literature can be, alchemizing the particulars of the poet’s life, times, and obsessions into something relevant to a wide public over years and even centuries. But the tendency to see him as one of us, as someone of our own moment, speaking to us in a voice that is transparently, recognizably our own about things whose meaning is self-evident, threatens to take a crucial specificity away from him—one that, if we restore it to him, makes him seem only greater, more a poet of the future (as he once described himself).

I am referring here, of course, to the particulars of the “life” that Seferis denied him, which is to say to his place and time. By “place and time” I mean, first of all, his own: the fervid if declining peripheries of the cosmopolitan Greek diaspora (Alexandria: always; never Athens) and the nineteenth century, which—astoundingly, it sometimes seems—he inhabited for more than half his life. The latter deeply colored his early style (many readers will be surprised to learn that much of Cavafy’s output, until he was nearly forty, was in sonnet form), while the former had a lasting influence on his themes, particularly his lifelong penchant for exploring the margins, the obscurer realms of Greek history and geography—Seleucia and Antioch and Cyrene, the second century BC and the fifth and seventh and fourteenth AD—and, of course, the obscurer realms of erotic experience as well. Being on the margins is, in fact, the key to this poet’s work, both “historical” and “sensual.” To fail to appreciate Cavafy’s unique perspective, one that (as it were) allowed him to see history with a lover’s eye, and love with a historian’s eye, is to be deprived of a chance to see the great and moving unity of the poet’s project.

2.

In one sense, it was indeed an unexceptional life—or at least, no more exceptional or distinguished than the lives of certain other great poets, in whom the richness of the work stands in striking contrast to the relative uneventfulness of the life (Emily Dickinson, say). Constantine Petrou Cavafy—the Anglicized spelling of the Greek Kavafis was one that Cavafy and his family invariably used—was born in Alexandria in 1863, the youngest of seven surviving sons of parents whose families were not at all untypical of the far-flung Greek diaspora, with its hints of vanished empire. Their roots could be traced not only to the Phanar, the Greek community clustered around the Patriarchate in Constantinople, and to Nichori (Turkish Yeniköi) in the Upper Bosporus, but also to Caesarea, to Antioch, and to Jassy, in present-day Moldavia.

His father, Peter John Cavafy, was a partner in a flourishing family business devoted to corn and cotton export that eventually had offices in London and Liverpool as well as in several cities in Egypt; after moving from Constantinople to London, he finally settled in Alexandria, where he would be considered one of the most important merchants in the mid-1850s (not coincidentally, a time when the Crimean War resulted in a steep rise in the price of grain). The poet’s mother, Haricleia Photiades, the daughter of a diamond merchant from Constantinople, counted an archbishop of Caesarea and a prince of Samos among her relations.

What effect the memory of such glory and prestige—carefully tended and endlessly polished by his mother long after she’d become a widow living in not very genteel poverty—might have had on her impressionable and imaginative youngest son, we can only guess at; but it is surely no accident that so much of Cavafy’s poetry is torn between deep sentiment about the lost riches of the past and the intelligent child’s rueful, sharp-eyed appreciation for the dangers of glib nostalgia. For his father’s premature death, when Constantine was only seven, would bring hard times to Haricleia and her sons, from which the family fortunes would never really recover. Peter John had lived well but not wisely.

For several years the widow Cavafy and her three younger sons ambled back and forth between Paris and London and Liverpool, relying on the generosity of her husband’s brothers. They stayed in England for five years, where Cavafy acquired the slight British inflection that, we are told, accented his Greek. When it became clear that the surviving brothers had hopelessly bungled their own affairs, Haricleia returned to Alexandria in 1877, when Cavafy was fourteen. With the exception of a three-year sojourn in Constantinople, from 1882 to 1885, following the British bombardment of Alexandria (a response to Egyptian nationalist violence against some of the city’s European inhabitants; the bombardment largely destroyed the family home), Cavafy would never live anywhere else again.

For some time, the life he lived there was, as he later described it to his friend Timos Malanos, a “double life.” The poet had probably had his first homosexual affair around the age of twenty, with a cousin, during his family’s stay in Constantinople; there is no question that he continued to act on the desires that were awakened at that time once he returned to Alexandria. By day, when he was in his middle and late twenties, he was his corpulent mother’s dutiful son (he called her, in English, “the Fat One”), working gratis as a clerk at the Irrigation Office of the Ministry of Public Works in the hopes of obtaining a salaried position there. (This he eventually did, in 1892, remaining at the office with the famously Dantesque name—the Third Circle of Irrigation—until his retirement, thirty years later.) From seven-thirty to ten in the evening he was expected to dine with the exigent and neurotic Haricleia. Afterward, he would escape to the city’s louche quarters.

One friend recalled that he kept a room in a brothel on the Rue Mosquée Attarine; another that he would return from his exploits and write, in large letters on a piece of paper, “I swear I won’t do it again.” Like many bourgeois homosexual men of his era and culture (and indeed later ones) he seems to have enjoyed the favors, and company, of lower-class youths: another acquaintance would recall Cavafy telling him that he’d once worked briefly as a dishwasher in a restaurant in order to save the job of one such friend, who’d been taken ill. About the youths and men he slept with we know little. We do know, from an extraordinary series of secret notes that he kept about his habitual masturbation, that the amusing Alexandrian nickname for that activity—“39,” because it was thought to be that many times more exhausting than any other sexual activity—was not entirely unjustified:

And yet I see clearly the harm and confusion that my actions produce upon my organism. I must, inflexibly, impose a limit on myself till 1 April, otherwise I shan’t be able to travel. I shall fall ill and how am I to cross the sea, and if I’m ill, how am I to enjoy my journey? Last January I managed to control myself. My health got right at once, I had no more throbbing. 6 March 1897.1

  1. 1

    Quoted in Robert Liddell, Cavafy: A Critical Biography (London: Duckworth, 1974, reprinted 2000), p. 72.

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