C.P. Cavafy's Biography

Constantine P. Cavafy (Kavafis), born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1863, was the ninth and last child of Constantinopolitan parents. His father, Peter Cavafy, left Constantinople as a young man (in 1836) to join his elder brother George in England where the two worked with Greek business firms in Manchester, London, and Liverpool. They returned to London in 1846, and three years later founded Cavafy Brothers, an export-import firm that prospered for some years dealing in Egyptian cotton and Manchester textiles. In 1894 Peter revisited Constantinople and there married Hariklia, daughter of a diamond merchant, George Photiadis, of Yenikoy on the Bosphorus (she was then a girl of fourteen). He left her in his mother's house in Pera and returned the following year to bring her and her first-born son to England. In August of that year (1850) he obtained British nationality, and he and his family spent the next few years in Liverpool. In late 1854 or early 1855 the family moved to Alexandria, and the Alexandrian branch of Cavafy Brothers soon became the central office of the family firm. Peter died in 1870, leaving the family poorly provided for. Hariklia and her seven sons moved to England two years later. The eldest son, George, became manager of the family firm in London, and the second son, Peter, manager in Liverpool. Their inexperience caused the ruin of the family fortunes. George's injudiciousness largely contributed to the liquidation of the firm in 1879, and Peter managed to lose their private inheritance by unwise speculations. With the exception of George, who stayed on in London, the family returned to a life of gentei poverty in Alexandria.

The seven years that Cavafy spent in England, between the ages of nine and sixteen, were important in the shaping of his poetic sensibility. Apart from his reading in English literature, he became so much at home in the English language and so familiar with English manners that the influence of both remained with him throughout his life (he is reported to have spoken his native Greek with a slight British accent until the day he died). His first verse was written in English (signed "Constantine Cavafy"), and both his subsequent practice as a poet and his limited prose criticism demonstrate a substantial familiarity with the English poetic tradition, in particular the works of Shakespeare, Browning, and Oscar Wilde.

Immediately after Cavafy returned to Alexandria from London, he enrolled for a brief period at the Hermis Lyceum, a commercial school that served the leading families in the Greek community. This is the only instance of formal education indicated by the biographical data currently available to us. During the same period he began a historical dictionary that was interrupted, significantly, at the entry "Alexander". Then, in 1882, before the British bombardment of Alexandria, Hariklia again moved her family abroad for a three-year interval, this time back to Constantinople, where her father gave them room in his house at Yenikoy and where she and the three sons with her (including Constantine) lived on what her other three sons, who had returned to Alexandria, were able to send her from their scanty earnings. It was a time of poverty and discomfort, but it proved to be another significant stage in the development of Cavafy's sensibility. He wrote his first poems - in English, French, and Greek - during this interval, and he apparently had his first homosexual affairs. There is also some evidence that he began to think of a career in politics or journalism, but was discouraged because he had never- attended law school. In any case, soon after his return to Alexandria in 1885, he received a press card as correspondent for the Alexandrian newspaper Telegraphos, and by 1888 he was working at the Egyptian Stock Exchange as assistant to his brother Aristidis. But much of his ambition during these years was devoted to the writing of poems and a few prose essays, including one in English entitled "Give Back the Elgin Marbles".

At the age of twenty-nine Cavafy took up an appointment as special clerk in the Irrigation Service (Third Circle) of the Ministry of Public Works, where he had apparently been doing piece-work as an unsalaried clerk for as long as three years, while waiting for an appropriate vacancy to occur. He held this appointment for the next thirty years, and it provided the principal source of his income, supplemented by speculative earnings (sometimes quite substantial) on the Egyptian Stock Exchange, which admitted him as a broker in 1894. His Greek citizenship precluded his becoming a member of the so-called "permanent staff" of the Service which was restricted to British or Egyptian subjects, but during the course of his career he received regular increases in salary (from 7 pounds a month in 1892 to 33 pounds a month in 1919), and he retired in 1922 with the rank of "Assistant Director". He continued to live in Alexandria until his death, from cancer of the larynx, in 1933. It is recorded that he received the holy communion of the Orthodox Church shortly before dying, and that his last motion was to draw a circle on a blank sheet of paper and then place a period in the middle of the circle.

From the outline of his sparse history, it would seem that Cavafy's richest life had to be the inner life sustained by his personal relations and his artistic creativity. Yet what little is known of the poet's social life suggests an image that is equally undramatic. There is now some reason to question the traditional view of Cavafy as an isolated figure hiding behind the dim candlelight of a stuffy, book-lined room (Sareyiannis' memoir indicates that the poet received visitors often and was known to be a stimulating, loquacious host when the mood struck him). At the same time, the bare facts of his biography suggest an unusually restricted circle of personal relations. He lived with his mother until her death in 1899, then with his unmarried brothers, and for most of his mature years, alone. The poet himself identified only two love affairs, both apparently transitory (see the comment on "September, 1903" and "December, 1903" in C.P. Cavafy: Passions and Ancient Days). A number of personal notes - largely unpublished - reveal that Cavafy was tormented until his middle forties not by complications resulting from his homosexual relationships (as a number of his erotic poems might lead one to think) but by guilt over what he felt to be a relentless autoeroticism. His one intimate, long-standing friendship, so far as is known, was with Alexander Singopoulos, whom Cavafy designated his heir and literary executor some ten years before his death, that is, when the poet was sixty years old.

Cavafy did maintain several influential literary relationships during his later years, including a twenty-year acquaintance with E.M. Forster; and as his unique contribution to twentieth-century poetry began to receive some local recognition, he became one of the few literary personalities European visitors to Alexandria might try to approach. Several of those who managed to search him out have reported that Cavafy was not only a receptive host but a learned conversationalist who had the fascinating capacity to gossip about historical figures from the distant past so as to make them seem a part of some scandalous intrigue taking place in the Alexandrian world immediately below the poet's second-floor balcony. Yet for all his local renown, Cavafy remained virtually unrecognized in Greece until late in his career (an article on his poetry by Grigori Xenopoulos in 1903 is a revealing exception), and his own attitude toward the public presentation of his work suggested an "uncommon aesthetic asceticism" (as expressed in the introduction to Passions and Ancient Days). Cavafy never offered a volume of his poems for sale during his lifetime; his method of distributing his work was to give friends and relatives the several pamphlets of his poems that he had printed privately and a folder of his latest broadsheets or offprints held together by a large clip. The only evidence of some public recognition in Greece during his later years was his receipt, in 1926, of the Order of the Phoenix from the Greek dictator Pangalos, and his appointment, in 1930, to the International Committee for the Rupert Brooke memorial statue that was placed on the island of Skyros. The latter may have been partly a consequence of the recognition Cavafy had gained in England by that time, including publication of "Ithaka" in T.S. Eliol's Criterion and the enthusiastic interest of T.E. Lawrence, Arnold Toynbee, and others who had been introduced to his work by E.M. Forster.

Though Cavafy met various men of letters during his several trips to Athens (including a four-month visit for medical reasons shortly before his death), he did not receive his full measure of appreciation from the Athenian literati until some time after the publication of his first collected edition in 1935. It seems likely that his importance went relatively unrecognized before his death for exactly those reasons that have now established him as perhaps the most original and influential Greek poet of this century: his uncompromising distaste, in his mature years, for rhetoric of the kind then prevalent among contemporary poets in mainland Greece; his almost prosaic frugality in the use of figures and metaphors; his constant evocation of spoken rhythms and colloquialisms; his frank, avant-garde treatment of homosexual themes; his reintroduction of epigrammatic and dramatic modes that had remained largely dormant since Hellenistic times; his often esoteric but brilliantly alive sense of history; his commitment to Hellenism, coupled with an astute cynicism about politics; his aesthetic perfectionism; his creation of a rich, unified mythic world during his mature years. These attributes, not yet in fashion during his day, and his refusal to enter the market place even to buy prestige, may have prevented him from realising all but the most private rewards for his genius. They are also among the characteristics most likely to assure him an enduring place in the longest literary tradition the Western World has known.

Edmund Keeley

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