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Constantine P. Cavafy
Constantine Cavafy in 1929
Constantine Cavafy in 1929
Born (1863-04-29)April 29, 1863
Alexandria, Egypt Eyalet
Died April 29, 1933(1933-04-29) (aged 70)
Alexandria, Kingdom of Egypt
Resting place Greek Orthodox Cemetery, Alexandria, Al Iskandariyah, Egypt
Occupation Poet, journalist, civil servant
Nationality Greek


Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis (Greek: Κωνσταντίνος Πέτρου Καβάφης [ka'vafis]; April 29 (April 17, OS), 1863 – April 29, 1933), known, especially in English, as Constantine P. Cavafy and often published as C. P. Cavafy (/kəˈvæfi/), was a Greek poet, journalist, and civil servant from Alexandria.

Cavafy's friend E. M. Forster, the novelist and literary critic, introduced his poems to the English-speaking world in 1923, famously describing him as "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe." Cavafy's consciously individual style earned him a place among the most important figures not only in Greek poetry, but in Western poetry as a whole.

Cavafy completed 155 poems, while dozens more remain incomplete or in sketch form. He consistently refused to publish his work in books, preferring to share it through local newspapers and magazines, or even print it himself and give it away to anyone who might be interested. His most important poems were written after his fortieth birthday, and were published two years after his death.


Cavafy was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents who originated from the Greek community of Constantinople (now Istanbul), and was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. His father's name was Πέτρος Ἰωάννης, Petros Ioannis—hence the Petrou patronymic (GEN) in his name—and his mother's Charicleia (Greek: Χαρίκλεια; née Γεωργάκη Φωτιάδη, Georgaki Photiadi). His father was a prosperous importer-exporter who had lived in England in earlier years and acquired British nationality. After his father died in 1870, Cavafy and his family settled for a while in Liverpool. In 1876, his family faced financial problems due to the Long Depression of 1873, so, by 1877, they had to move back to Alexandria.

In 1882, disturbances in Alexandria caused the family to move again, though temporarily, to Constantinople. This was the year when a revolt broke out in Alexandria against the Anglo-French control of Egypt, thus precipitating the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War. Alexandria was bombarded by a British fleet, and the family apartment at Ramleh was burned.

In 1885, Cavafy returned to Alexandria, where he lived for the rest of his life. His first work was as a journalist; then he took a position with the British-run Egyptian Ministry of Public Works for thirty years. (Egypt was a British protectorate until 1926.) He published his poetry from 1891 to 1904 in the form of broadsheets, and only for his close friends. Any acclaim he was to receive came mainly from within the Greek community of Alexandria. Eventually, in 1903, he was introduced to mainland-Greek literary circles through a favourable review by Gregorios Xenopoulos. He received little recognition because his style differed markedly from the then-mainstream Greek poetry. It was only twenty years later, after the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish War (1919–1922), that a new generation of almost nihilist poets (e.g. Karyotakis) found inspiration in Cavafy's work.

A biographical note written by Cavafy reads as follows:

I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria—at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French, and a little Italian.

He died of cancer of the larynx on April 29, 1933, his 70th birthday. Since his death, Cavafy's reputation has grown. His poetry is taught in school in Greece and Cyprus, and in universities around the world.

E. M. Forster knew him personally and wrote a memoir of him, contained in his book Alexandria. Forster, Arnold J. Toynbee, and T. S. Eliot were among the earliest promoters of Cavafy in the English-speaking world before the Second World War. In 1966, David Hockney made a series of prints to illustrate a selection of Cavafy's poems, including In the dull village.


Cavafy's poem Κρυμμένα ("Krimmena", Hidden Things) painted on a building in Leiden, Netherlands.

Cavafy was instrumental in the revival and recognition of Greek poetry both at home and abroad. His poems are, typically, concise but intimate evocations of real or literary figures and milieux that have played roles in Greek culture. Uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality, and a fatalistic existential nostalgia are some of the defining themes.

Besides his subjects, unconventional for the time, his poems also exhibit a skilled and versatile craftsmanship, which is extremely difficult to translate. Cavafy was a perfectionist, obsessively refining every single line of his poetry. His mature style was a free iambic form, free in the sense that verses rarely rhyme and are usually from 10 to 17 syllables. In his poems, the presence of rhyme usually implies irony.

Cavafy drew his themes from personal experience, along with a deep and wide knowledge of history, especially of the Hellenistic era. Many of his poems are pseudo-historical, or seemingly historical, or accurately but quirkily historical.

One of Cavafy's most important works is his 1904 poem "Waiting for the Barbarians". The poem begins by describing a city-state in decline, whose population and legislators are waiting for the arrival of the barbarians. When night falls, the barbarians have not arrived. The poem ends: "What is to become of us without barbarians? Those people were a solution of a sort." The poem influenced literary works such as The Tartar Steppe by Dino Buzzati (1940), The Opposing Shore (1951) by Julien Gracq, and Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) by J. M. Coetzee.

In 1911, Cavafy wrote "Ithaca", inspired by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey. The poem's theme is the destination which produces the journey of life: "Keep Ithaca always in your mind. / Arriving there is what you’re destined for". The traveller should set out with hope, and at the end you may find Ithaca has no more riches to give you, but "Ithaca gave you the marvelous journey".

Almost all of Cavafy's work was in Greek; yet, his poetry remained unrecognized and underestimated in Greece, until after the publication of the first anthology in 1935 by Heracles Apostolidis (father of Renos Apostolidis). His unique style and language (which was a mixture of Katharevousa and Demotic Greek) had attracted the criticism of Kostis Palamas, the greatest poet of his era in mainland Greece, and his followers, who were in favour of the simplest form of Demotic Greek.

He is known for his prosaic use of metaphors, his brilliant use of historical imagery, and his aesthetic perfectionism. These attributes, amongst others, have assured him an enduring place in the literary pantheon of the Western World.

Historical poems

Manuscript of Cavafy's Ptolemaic glory ("Η δόξα τῶν Πτολεμαίων").

Cavafy wrote over a dozen historical poems about famous historical figures and regular people. He was mainly inspired by the Hellenistic era with Alexandria at primary focus. Other poems originate from Helleno-romaic antiquity and the Byzantine era. Mythological references are also present. The periods chosen are mostly of decline and decadence (e.g. Trojans); his heroes facing the final end. His historical poems include: "The Glory of the Ptolemies", "In Sparta", "Come, O King of Lacedaemonians", "The First Step", "In the Year 200 B.C.", "If Only They Had Seen to It", "The Displeasure of Seleucid", "Theodotus", "Alexandrian Kings", "In Alexandria, 31 B.C.", "The God Forsakes Antony", "In a Township of Asia Minor", "Caesarion", "The Potentate from Western Libya", "Of the Hebrews (A.D. 50)", "Tomb of Eurion", "Tomb of Lanes", "Myres: Alexandrian A.D. 340", "Perilous Things", "From the School of the Renowned Philosopher", "A Priest of the Serapeum", "Kleitos' Illness", "If Dead Indeed", "In the Month of Athyr", "Tomb of Ignatius", "From Ammones Who Died Aged 29 in 610", "Aemilianus Monae", "Alexandrian, A.D. 628-655", "In Church", "Morning Sea" (a few poems about Alexandria were left unfinished at his death).

Philosophical poems

Manuscript of his poem Thermopylae ("Θερμοπύλες").

Also called instructive poems, they are divided into poems with consultations to poets, and poems that deal with other situations such as isolation (for example, "The walls"), duty (for example, "Thermopylae"), and human dignity (for example, "The God Abandons Antony").

The poem "Thermopylae" reminds us of the famous battle of Thermopylae where the 300 Spartans and their allies fought against the greater numbers of Persians, although they knew that they would be defeated. There are some principles in our lives that we should live by, and Thermopylae is the ground of duty. We stay there fighting although we know that there is the potential for failure. (At the end the traitor Ephialtes will appear, leading the Persians through the secret trail).

In another poem, "In the Year 200 B.C.", he comments on the historical epigram “Alexander, son of Philip, and the Greeks, except of Lacedaemonians,...”, from the donation of Alexander to Athens after the Battle of the Granicus. Cavafy praises the Hellenistic era and idea, so condemning the closed-mind and localistic ideas about Hellenism. However, in other poems, his stance displays ambiguity between the Classical ideal and the Hellenistic era (which is sometimes described with a tone of decadence).

Another poem is the Epitaph of a Greek trader from Samos who was sold into slavery in India and dies on the shores of the Ganges: regretting the greed for riches which led him to sail so far away and end up "among utter barbarians", expressing his deep longing for his homeland and his wish to die as "In Hades I would be surrounded by Greeks".


House-museum of Cavafy, Alexandria.
Cavafy bust
A bust of Constantine Cavafy located in his apartment.

Cavafy's Alexandria apartment has since been converted into a museum. The museum holds several of Cavafy's sketches and original manuscripts as well as containing several pictures and portraits of and by Cavafy.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Constantino Cavafis para niños

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