The youngest of seven sons of a prosperous Greek merchant, Constantin P Cavafy was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1863, where he spent most of his life, working as a government clerk in the area of water irrigation. He was also an occasional journalist.
The poet wrote in Greek, but only visited Greece four times in his life. As is often the case, his popularity grew apace after his death. Fellow poets WH Auden, Lawrence Durrell (who translated him), and more recently, Seamus Heaney were instrumental in spreading the word. During his lifetime, Cavafy published his poems at his own expense and circulated them among his friends.
Even after publication, he continually revised and amended the work. His verses often have an engaging air, as though he were calling the reader aside to share an astute observation about mortality or transience. A recurring them is the essential vanity of humankind through the ages, the feet of clay of classical figures. He also wrote erotic poetry recalling the dalliances of his gay youth.
Cavafy was fluent in English, and the poet George Seferis believed that he only spoke English until the age of nine. After the death of the poet’s father, Constantin's mother Charicleia brought three of her sons to England. The aspirant poet went to school in Liverpool and London.
Cavafy (or Cavafis) is one of the most referenced poets in the world today. His poems are accessible, almost conversational in tone, despite their erudition, typically built on a theme or conceit from the Hellenic and Byzantine eras. In many of his poems, he summons to life long vanished, often obscure, marginal figures from history. There is a sense of Shakesperean grandeur and breadth about much of his work.
You may know him better than you think. Leonard Cohen’s song, Alexandra Leaving was written as a free adaptation of the Cavafy poem, The God Abandons Antony. His most famous poem, Ithaca, was read at the funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis In 1994, .
Ithaca urges the reader to enjoy the journey, rather than getting too wrapped up in the destination. In other words, it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive. The stirring opening lines run as follows in Daniel Mendelsohn’s translation: “As you set out on the way to Ithaca/ hope that the road is a long one,/filled with adventures, filled with discoveries.” There is tremendous power in these words, the benign narrator is cautiously hopeful before all that the reader, the prospective traveller, may witness on life's journey.
The destination is not the point, though logically the traveller will believe it to be so. “Always in your mind keep Ithaca. /To arrive there is your destiny./But do not hurry your trip in any way.” Given the intense feeling of these lines in English, one envies the reader who is able to appreciate the poem in the original Greek in which Cavafy wrote.
The poet lived with his mother until her death in 1899, and in later life he lived in a flat over a brothel in Alexandria. He died in his native city on his seventieth birthday, April 29, 1933. Daniel Mendelsohn has previously edited two collections of Cavafy's poems. His lengthy introduction to this capacious volume is written with humane, engaging flair, and is in itself one of the book's treasures.