By Eleni Sakellis
As National Poetry Month comes to a close, it is fitting that we also celebrate the birthday of one of Greece’s most famous poets, Constantine Cavafy. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt on April 29, 1863. His family was originally from Constantinople, but business interests took the family to Alexandria and even England where the family lived for a few years before returning to Egypt. The outbreak of the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882 led the family to a brief stay in Constantinople. Afterwards, Cavafy returned to Alexandria where he remained for the rest of his life.
He worked as a journalist and at the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt, but began publishing his poems in 1891 mostly for his friends. His style was not particularly well-received in the literary circles of mainland Greece when novelist, journalist, playwright and critic Gregorios Xenopoulos first introduced Cavafy’s work to Athens in 1903. It took twenty years for Cavafy’s work to gain popularity and many post-Catastrophe writers found inspiration in the poems of the multilingual Cavafy. In addition to Greek, Cavafy spoke English, French, and some Italian, but his poems were all written in Greek. The influence of Hellenism and Hellenic culture is profound in his poems. He died in 1933 on his 70th birthday, largely unknown as a poet until the publication in 1935 of the anthology of his work, Poems.
The Cavafy Archive is available online in Greek and English. The most recent English translation by award-winning author, critic, and translator Daniel Mendelsohn, Complete Poems by C.P. Cavafy, was published in 2012 and is also available online and in bookstores and libraries.
For those interested in reading his life story, Cavafy: A Biography by Robert Liddell is available online. Also available is the travel guide Alexandria: A History and Guide by E.M. Forster who knew Cavafy. The book was first published in 1922 and is in many ways an introduction of Cavafy to the English-speaking world. The translation of Cavafy’s “The God Abandons Antony” is the first Cavafy poem to appear in print in English in Forster’s guidebook. Forster wrote the book after spending 4 years in Alexandria during the First World War.
The Canon: The Original One Hundred and Fifty-Four Poems, published by Harvard University in the Hellenic Studies Series is an English and Greek Edition translated by Stratis Haviaras and with a foreword written by world-renowned, Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The bilingual editions demonstrate how well Cavafy’s poems work in translation, with their universal themes and international aspect, reminding us how very cosmopolitan the city of Alexandria once was with its residents from all over the world and especially its resident Greek population. In addition to Greek, Cavafy spoke English, French, and a some Italian.
The Cavafy Museum is located on Rue C.P. Cavafy (formerly Rue Lepsius and Rue Sharm el Sheik), 4, Attarin, Alexandria, in the poet’s former apartment. Established in 1992 through the initiative of the late Kostis Moskof, who was the cultural attache to the Greek Embassy in Cairo from 1990 until his death in 1998. Among the items in the museum’s collection are original manuscripts, sketches, and portraits of and by the poet.
More information on Cavafy is available online www.cavafy.com.