Constantine P. Cavafy

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Constantine P. Cavafy
Constantine Cavafy in 1929
Constantine Cavafy in 1929
Native name
Κωνσταντίνος Καβάφης
Born(1863-04-29)April 29, 1863
Alexandria, Egypt Eyalet
DiedApril 29, 1933(1933-04-29) (aged 70)
Alexandria, Kingdom of Egypt
Resting placeGreek Orthodox Cemetery, Alexandria, Al Iskandariyah, Egypt[1]
OccupationPoet, journalist, civil servant
Notable awardsSilver medal of the Order of the Phoenix

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.[2] A major figure of modern Greek literature, he is sometimes considered the most distinguished Greek poet of the 20th century.[3][4] His works and consciously individual style earned him a place among the most important contributors not only to Greek poetry, but to Western poetry as a whole.[5]

Cavafy's poetic canon consists of 154 poems, while dozens more that remained incomplete or in sketch form weren't published until much later. 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.[6]

Cavafy's work has been translated numerous times in many languages. His friend E. M. Forster, the novelist and literary critic, first introduced his poems to the English-speaking world in 1923; he referred to him as "The Poet",[7] famously describing him as "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe."[8] His work, as one translator put it, "holds the historical and the erotic in a single embrace."[9]


Cavafy was born in 1863 in Alexandria (then Ottoman Egypt), where his Greek parents settled in 1855; he was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church, and had six older brothers.[a] Originating from the Phanariot Greek community of Constantinople (now Istanbul), his father was named Petros Ioannis (Πέτρος Ἰωάννης)—hence the Petrou patronymic (GEN) in his name—and his mother Charicleia (Χαρίκλεια; née Georgaki Photiades, Γεωργάκη Φωτιάδη).[6][10][11] His father was a prosperous merchant who had lived in England in earlier years and held both Greek and British nationality. Two years after his father's sudden death in 1870, Cavafy and his family settled for a while in England, moving between Liverpool and London. In 1876, the family faced financial problems due to the Long Depression of 1873 and with their business now dissolved they moved back to Alexandria in 1877. Cavafy attended the Greek college "Hermes", where he made his first close friends, and started drafting his own historical dictionary at age eighteen.[b][12][6]

In 1882, disturbances in Alexandria caused the family to move, though again temporarily, to Constantinople, where they stayed at the house of his maternal grandfather, Georgakis Photiades. 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. During these events, Alexandria was bombarded, and the family apartment at Ramleh was burned. Upon his arrival in Constantinople, the nineteen-year old Cavafy first came in contact with his many relatives and started researching his ancestry, trying to define himself in the wider Hellenic context. There he started preparing for a career in journalism and politics, and began his first systematic attempts to produce poetry.[6][10]

Cavafy in 1896.

In 1885, Cavafy returned to Alexandria, where he lived for the rest of his life, leaving it only for excursions and travels abroad. After his arrival, he reacquired his Greek citizenship and abandoned the British citizenship, which his father had acquired in the late 1840s.[13] He initially started working as a news correspondent at the journal "Telegraphos" (1886), he later worked at the stock exchange, and was eventually hired as a temporary, due to his foreign citizenship, clerk in the British-run Egyptian Ministry of Public Works. A conscientious worker, Cavafy held this position by renewing it annually for thirty years (Egypt remained a British protectorate until 1926). During these decades, a series of unexpected deaths of close friends and relatives would leave their mark on the poet. 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.[14]

In 1922, Cavafy quit his high-ranking position at the department of Public Works, an act that he characterized as liberation, and devoted himself to the completion of his poetic work. In 1926, the Greek state honoured Cavafy for his contribution to Greek letters by awarding him the Silver medal of the Order of Phoenix.[10] 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.[15] 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 Hidden Things (Κρυμμένα) painted on a building in Leiden, Netherlands.

Cavafy's complete literary corpus includes the 154 poems that constitute his poetic canon; his 75 unpublished or "hidden" poems, that were found completed in his archive or in the hands of friends, and weren't published until 1968; his 37 rejected poems, which he published but later renounced; his 30 incomplete poems that were found unfinished in his archive; as well as numerous other prose poems, essays, and letters.[16] According to the poet's instructions, his poems are classified into three categories: historical, philosophical, and hedonistic or sensual.[10]

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.[17] 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.[18]

In 1911, Cavafy wrote "Ithaca", often considered his best-known poem,[19] inspired by the Homeric return journey (nostos) 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[edit]

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).[20]

Homoerotic poems[edit]

Cavafy's sensual poems are filled with the lyricism and emotion of same-sex love, inspired by recollection and remembrance. The past and former actions, sometimes along with the vision for the future underlie the muse of Cavafy in writing these poems. As poet George Kalogeris observes:[21]

He is perhaps most popular today for his erotic verse, in which the Alexandrian youth[s] in his poems seem to have stepped right out of the Greek Anthology, and into a less accepting world that makes them vulnerable, and often keeps them in poverty, though the same Hellenic amber immures their beautiful bodies. The subjects of his poems often have a provocative glamour to them even in barest outline: the homoerotic one night stand that is remembered for a lifetime, the oracular pronouncement unheeded, the talented youth prone to self destruction, the offhand remark that indicates a crack in the imperial façade.

Philosophical poems[edit]

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).[22]

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.[23] 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's apartment in Alexandria is located on Lepsius street, which, after the apartment's conversion to a museum, was renamed to Cavafy street in honour of the poet. The museum was established in 1992 at the initiative of scholar Kostis Moskof, cultural attaché to the Greek Embassy in Cairo until 1998.[7] After Cavafy’s death in 1933, the apartment turned into a cheap hostel; it was later recontructed with the help of photographs becoming reminiscent of Cavafy's time. The Cavafy Museum contains a wide range of bibliographical material; it is home to several of Cavafy's sketches and original manuscripts, as well as several pictures and portraits of and by Cavafy. It holds translations of Cavafy’s poetry in 20 languages by 40 different scholars and most of the 3,000 articles and works written about his poetry.[24]

A bust of Cavafy located in his apartment

In popular culture[edit]

In film[edit]



Other references[edit]


Selections of Cavafy's poems appeared only in pamphlets, privately printed booklets and broadsheets during his lifetime. The first publication in book form was "Ποιήματα" (Poiēmata, "Poems"), published posthumously in Alexandria, 1935.

Volumes with translations of Cavafy's poetry in English include:

  • Poems by C. P. Cavafy, translated by John Mavrogordato (London: Chatto & Windus, 1978, first edition in 1951)
  • The Complete Poems of Cavafy, translated by Rae Dalven, introduction by W. H. Auden (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961)
  • The Greek Poems of C.P. Cavafy As Translated by Memas Kolaitis, two volumes (New York: Aristide D. Caratzas, Publisher, 1989)
  • Complete Poems by C P Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn, (Harper Press, 2013)
  • Passions and Ancient Days - 21 New Poems, Selected and translated by Edmund Keeley and George Savidis (London: The Hogarth Press, 1972)
  • Poems by Constantine Cavafy, translated by George Khairallah (Beirut: privately printed, 1979)
  • C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis, Revised edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992)
  • Selected Poems of C. P. Cavafy, translated by Desmond O'Grady (Dublin: Dedalus, 1998)
  • Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy, translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis, foreword by Gore Vidal (New York: Harcourt, 2001)
  • Poems by C. P. Cavafy, translated by J.C. Cavafy (Athens: Ikaros, 2003)
  • I've Gazed So Much by C. P. Cavafy, translated by George Economou (London: Stop Press, 2003)
  • C. P. Cavafy, The Canon, translated by Stratis Haviaras, foreword by Seamus Heaney (Athens: Hermes Publishing, 2004)
  • The Collected Poems, translated by Evangelos Sachperoglou, edited by Anthony Hirst and with an introduction by Peter Mackridge (Oxford: Oxford University Press, ISBN 9608762707 2007)
  • The Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy: A New Translation, translated by Aliki Barnstone, Introduction by Gerald Stern (New York: W.W. Norton, 2007)
  • C. P. Cavafy, Selected Poems, translated with an introduction by Avi Sharon (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2008)
  • Cavafy: 166 Poems, translated by Alan L Boegehold (Axios Press, ISBN 1604190051 2008)
  • C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009)
  • C. P. Cavafy, Poems: The Canon, translated by John Chioles, edited by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard Early Modern and Modern Greek Library, ISBN 9780674053267, 2011)
  • "C.P. Cavafy, Selected Poems", translated by David Connolly, Aiora Press, Athens 2013
  • Clearing the Ground: C.P. Cavafy, Poetry and Prose, 1902-1911, translations and essay by Martin McKinsey (Chapel Hill: Laertes, 2015)

Translations of Cavafy's poems are also included in:

  • Lawrence Durrell, Justine (London, UK: Faber & Faber, 1957)
  • Modern Greek Poetry, edited by Kimon Friar (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973)
  • Memas Kolaitis, Cavafy as I knew him (Santa Barbara, CA: Kolaitis Dictionaries, 1980)
  • James Merrill, Collected Poems (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002)
  • David Ferry, Bewilderment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012)
  • Don Paterson, Landing Light (London, UK: Faber & Faber, 2003)
  • Derek Mahon, Adaptations (Loughcrew, Ireland: The Gallery Press, 2006)
  • A.E. Stallings, Hapax (Evanston, Illinois: Triquarterly Books, 2006)
  • Don Paterson, Rain (London, UK: Faber & Faber, 2009)
  • John Ash, In the Wake of the Day (Manchester, UK: Carcanet Press, 2010)
  • David Harsent, Night (London, UK: Faber & Faber, 2011)
  • Selected Prose Works, C.P. Cavafy, edited and translated by Peter Jeffreys (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010)


  1. ^ Two more elder siblings, a sole sister and a brother, had died in infancy.
  2. ^ The dictionary was compiled with the help of books that Cavafy borrowed from public libraries; it eventually remained incomplete, stopping at the word "Alexandros".


  1. ^ Egypt, by Dan Richardson, Rough Guides, 2003, p. 594.
  2. ^ Before Time Could Change Them. Theoharis Constantine. 2001. pp. 13–15.
  3. ^ "C. P. Cavafy". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 28 September 2022.
  4. ^ "C. P. Cavafy". Retrieved 28 September 2022.
  5. ^ "Constantine P. Cavafy - Greek writer". Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d "C.P. Cavafy - Biography". Archived from the original on 13 February 2014. Retrieved 5 July 2008. Retrieved 7 December 2006.
  7. ^ a b "Cavafy Museum | Hellenic Foundation for Culture". 10 November 2014. Retrieved 27 December 2023.
  8. ^ Forster, E. M. (1923). Pharos and Pharillon. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 110.
  9. ^ Margaronis, Maria (15 July 2009). "Mixing History and Desire: The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy". The Nation. Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  10. ^ a b c d "Κ. Π. Καβάφης - Η Ζωή και το Εργο του" [C. P. Cavafy - His life and Work] (in Greek). 11 August 2017. Archived from the original on 11 August 2017. Retrieved 27 December 2023.
  11. ^ Tsirkas, Stratis (1983). Ο Καβάφης και η εποχή του [Cavafy and his era] (in Greek). Kedros. pp. 47–48. ISBN 978-960-04-0875-1.
  12. ^ Daskalopoulos & Stasinopoulou 2002, pp. 17–22.
  13. ^ Daskalopoulos & Stasinopoulou 2002, pp. 19, 26.
  14. ^ Woods, Gregory (1999). A History of Gay Literature, the Male Tradition. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-08088-9.
  15. ^ Talalay, Lauren. "Cavafy's World". Kelsey Museum Newsletter. The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan. Retrieved 28 February 2022.
  16. ^ "Κ. Π. Καβάφης - Ποιήματα" [C. P. Cavafy - Poems]. 5 May 2009. Archived from the original on 5 May 2009. Retrieved 28 December 2023.
  17. ^ "More Cavafy by A. E. Stallings". Poetry Foundation. 27 January 2018. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  18. ^ Barbarism Revisited: New Perspectives on an Old Concept. BRILL. 27 October 2015. ISBN 978-90-04-30927-2.
  19. ^ Mendelsohn 2022, p. 611.
  20. ^ Savvopoulos, Kyriakos (2013). A Historical Guide to Cavafy's Alexandria (331 BCE - 641 CE). Alexandria: Bibliotheca Alexandrina. pp. 105–194. ISBN 978-977-452-243-7.
  21. ^ Kalogeris, George (September–October 2009). "The Sensuous Archaism of C.P. Cavafy". The Critical Flame (3). Retrieved 15 June 2021.
  22. ^ "Thermopylae – a poem on the good kind of life". 30 June 2008. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  23. ^ "C.P. Cavafy - Poems - The Canon". Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  24. ^ "Alexandria Portal - Cavafy Museum". Retrieved 27 December 2023.
  25. ^ Cavafy at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  26. ^ "Alexandros Film". Alexandros Film. Retrieved 6 March 2024.
  27. ^ Haralambopoulos, Stelios. "The Night Fernando Pessoa Met Constantine Cavafy". Retrieved 11 May 2022.
  28. ^ Pamuk, Orhan (19 December 2013). "Other Countries, Other Shores". The New York Times. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  29. ^ "Alexandra Leaving". Archived from the original on 21 May 2019. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  30. ^ Rhodes, Frank H. T. "Commencement Address 1995" (PDF). Retrieved 29 August 2016.


Further reading[edit]

  • Panagiotis Roilos, C. P. Cavafy: The Economics of Metonymy, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
  • Panagiotis Roilos (ed.), Imagination and Logos: Essays on C. P. Cavafy, Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2010 (ISBN 9780674053397).
  • Robert Liddell, Cavafy: A Critical Biography (London: Duckworth, 1974). A widely acclaimed biography of Cavafy. This biography has also been translated in Greek (Ikaros, 1980) and Spanish (Ediciones Paidos Iberica, 2004).
  • P. Bien, Constantine Cavafy (1964)
  • Edmund Keeley, Cavafy's Alexandria (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995). An extensive analysis of Cavafy's works.
  • Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005). Provides a portrait of the city during the first half of the 20th century and a biographical account of Cavafy and his influence on E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell.
  • Michael Haag, Vintage Alexandria: Photographs of the City 1860–1960 (New York and Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008). A photographic record of the cosmopolitan city as it was known to Cavafy. It includes photographs of Cavafy, E. M. Forster, Lawrence Durrell, and people they knew in Alexandria.
  • Martin McKinsey, Hellenism and the Postcolonial Imagination: Yeats, Cavafy, Walcott (Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2010). First book to approach Cavafy's work from a postcolonial perspective.

External links[edit]