On Cavafy’s Side

Cavafy's Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress

by Edmund Keeley
Harvard University Press, 196 pp., $11.50


Constantine Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863, and died there seventy years later of throat cancer. The uneventfulness of his life would have made the strictest of New Critics happy. Cavafy was the ninth child of a well-to-do mercantile family, whose prosperity went into rapid decline with the death of his father. At the age of nine the future poet went to England, where Cavafy and Sons had its branches, and he returned to Alexandria at sixteen. He was brought up in the Greek Orthodox religion. For a while he attended the Hermes Lyceum, a business school in Alexandria, and some sources tell us that while there he was more interested in classical and historical studies than in the art of commerce. But this may be merely a cliché in the biography of a poet.

In 1882, when Cavafy was nineteen, an anti-European outbreak took place in Alexandria which caused a great deal of bloodshed (at least according to that century’s standards), and the British retaliated with a naval bombardment of the city. Since Cavafy and his mother had left for Constantinople not long before, he missed his chance to witness perhaps the only historic event to take place in Alexandria during his lifetime. He spent three subsequent years in Constantinople—important years for his development. It was in Constantinople that the historical diary, which he had been keeping for several years, stopped—at the entry marked “Alexander.” Here also he allegedly had his first homosexual experience. At twenty-eight Cavafy got his first job, as a temporary clerk at the Department of Irrigation in the Ministry of Public Works. This provisional position turned out to be fairly permanent: he held it for the next thirty years, occasionally making some extra money as a broker on the Alexandrian Stock Exchange.

Cavafy knew ancient and modern Greek, Latin, Arabic, French; he read Dante in Italian and he wrote his first poems in English. But if there were any literary influences—and in the book under review Edmund Keeley sees some in the English Romantics—they ought to be confined to that stage of Cavafy’s poetic development which the poet himself dismissed from the “canon” of his work, as Keeley defines it. As for the later period, Cavafy’s treatment of what were known during Hellenic times as mime-jambs (or simply “mime”) and his use of the epitaph are so much his own that Keeley is correct in sparing us the haze of the Palatine Anthology.

The uneventfulness of Cavafy’s life extends to his never having published a book of his poems. He lived in Alexandria, wrote poems (occasionally printing them in feuilles volantes, as pamphlets or broadsheets in a severely limited edition), talked in cafés to local or visiting literati, played cards, bet on horses, visited homosexual brothels, and sometimes attended church.

I believe that there are at least five editions of Cavafy’s poetry in English. The most successful renderings are those by Rae Dalven1 and Messrs. Edmund Keeley and Philip…

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