If MGO readers haven't figured it out by now, Constantine Cavafy, the poet of the Greek disapora, is one of my favorite poets. Cavafy, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt for most of his life, is considered by many to be one of the great international poets. During his lifetime he wrote one hundred fifty four poems that explore the persistent existential problems we all face. His impact is wide ranging having influenced Nobel prize winning poets such as George Seferis, Czeslaw Milosz, Joseph Brodsky, and Eugenio Montale. The themes that pervade his work include Hellenism, alienation, the double identity of the person, and the psychology of the crowd. His poems are short, full of irony and meaning, They speak with his unique voice and are immediately recognizable as his, and his alone.
Cavafy was one of nine children born to an aristocratic mercantile family of Alexandrian Greeks in 1863. His father, a cotton merchant, lost his fortune and eventually died penniless. At the age of nine, Cavafy and his mother moved to Liverpool, England to live with his older brother. Cavafy was strongly influenced by the English literary tradition especially by the poetry of Robert Browning. In England, Cavafy absorbed a huge amount of English culture but actually preferred French literature. Although he spoke Greek with an English accent he never got around to writing in English, opting instead for the Greek demotic language as spoken by Alexandrian Greeks.
The family returned to Alexandria from England but was forced to leave again in 1882 when fifty Christians were killed in riots by Muslim extremists. The family fled to Constantinople to live with the family of Cavafy's mother. In Constantinople Cavafy began his clandestine life of homosexual liasons which would remain hidden but an ever present part of much of his life. When he returned to his beloved Alexandria he worked for a time as a journalist and stockbroker without success, then settled into a clerical post with the British Irrigation Service where he remained for thirty years. His profession, first and foremost was always that of poet and everything else was a secondary.
Cavafy lived a life of bourgeois respectability, keeping his sexual orientation hidden. His escapades into the more notorious quarters of Alexandria were followed by remorse, often vowing to give it all up and just as often returning to it, again and again. This part of Cavafy found its way into his poems, yet it was always indirect and never breached the Victorian limits of decency.
After the death of his mother and brother, Cavafy entered a period of isolation. He moved to seedy part of Alexandria, living in an apartment above a brothel. He became an ascetic in a sense, devoting himself to his poetry. He once remarked that his home was well situated to meet all his needs, living in close proximity to a hospital, a church and a brothel. At the age of forty, Cavafy made his first trip to his ancestral homeland, arriving in Athens. It was here that he resolved that his true home would always remain Alexandria.
In 1910, he began writing his epic lyrical poems using a new style of prose, which emphasized economical seech rather than excessive rhetoric. He adamantly refused to allow his work to be handed over to commercial publishers, choosing to give selected individuals his poems or publishing them in literary journals.
Cavafy refused to involve himself in the politics of the time, nevertheless when it came to his art he was neither timid nor shy. In fact, his nature was rebellious, challenging arrogance and hubris in many of his poems. Although he was decorated by the Greek government for his literary efforts on behalf of the Greek people after the catastrophe of 1922, it was Englishmen like E.M. Forster, Arnold Toynbee, and T. E. Lawrence who brought him into the literary mainstream. It took another thirty years before Cavafy became a household name in Greece.
Cavafy was first and foremost a Greek of the Diaspora; a Greek in the broader sense of the word, that is one influenced by and influencing the outside world. He considered himself more Hellenistic than purely Hellenic. He acknowledged his Asiatic tastes, however, he also acknowledged the cultural continuity of the Greek spirit, refusing to write in any language other than Greek. His poems traverse the entire continum of the Greek experience to include Classical Greece, Romiosini and the Diaspora. It is this condensation of the Greek historical experience coupled with his treatment of universal human problems in a very contemporary style that speaks to so many people, in so many different ways.
In 1932, he was diagnosed with throat cancer which required a tracheostomy to prolong his life, though it deprived him of his speech. For the rest of his life he communicated by scribbling notes. On his deathbed at the age of seventy, after recieving last rites of the Orthodox Church he drew a circle on a piece of paper with a point in the middle signifying a period and the end of his journey. For Cavafy, his destination was the journey itself.