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Cavafy: Solemn, ironic and cryptic

A victim of homophobia, warmongering and the cancer that pursued him until he succumbed, Constantine P. Cavafy (1863 – 1933) is a famed Greek-language poet whose work was barely read during his own lifetime. Despite which, his greatness would come to be widely recognised.

 

Konstantinos Kavafis. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Antonio Paneque Brizuela 

 

Ignored because of his sexual preferences, displaced with the rest of his family from his native Alexandria to Constantinople (present-day Istanbul) by English bombardments, the poet lived in Liverpool for a time and was eventually caught in the clutches of his fatal illness: Cavafy’s work was largely unknown during his lifetime.

Although later considered one of the most important writers of the twentieth century and one of the greatest exponents of the renaissance of his country’s language, he chose to distance himself from the publishing world, despite long-term employment as a journalist and civil servant.

It was his own decision to never have his complete collected works published during his lifetime, thus his meagre contemporary bibliography consisted of just two slim volumes of verse: one from 1904, containing 12 poems, and another from 1910, containing 27.

Only posthumously were his complete works prolifically published, garnering success for his poetry which is characterised by a unique cohesiveness and brevity.

In the Greek language, however, his poems did not appear in translation until 1935, in an edition of 154 of his canonical poems, that’s to say those Cavafy himself deemed worthy of publication, many others were rejected and never saw the light.

Far removed from the publishing houses and his editors, and far removed from the support of those who would the world with his lyrical output after his death, including in the present day, Cavafy decided to share his work only with those he considered primed to interpret it, in his native Alexandria, which he would not leave until his death. As an additional manner of independent publishing, the poet would sometimes print a few poems on loose sheets and distribute them discreetly and almost anonymously among his friends.

This he did while fulfilling his other quite different roles, such as working as an Egyptian civil servant responsible for public infrastructure.

Philologists  recall how, despite suffering a kind of ‘stage fright’ when faced with the publishers and literary cohorts who pursued him for most of his life, the inherent personality and force of Cavafy’s creations have, in any case, reached their audience in the decades following his death.

The impact of his work was first made in the Greek cultural sphere and thereafter in the western world, issuing from countries like the United Kingdom, where his work was popularized thanks to the efforts of the British novelist and essayist Edward Morgan Foster.

Experts assert that Cavafy’s style “consciously rejects rhetoric, but displays a serious and intelligent sense of remoteness, which is at once solemn and ironic”. The body of work is “mature, demanding, imbued with a sophisticated knowledge of Greco-Roman culture and an underlying sense of irony”.

A writer who attained exquisite craftsmanship through his laborious editing process, Cavafy ceaselessly revised his texts until he attained perfection, going to the extreme of spending ten years on some poems before they were considered finished.

Such craftsmanship is the reason why his oeuvre consists of only 154 poems considered finished by him, although it includes other compositions that in his opinion had not attained their definitive form.

“Art gives form to Beauty, combining impressions, combining days, it rounds off life with an imperceptible touch,” reads one of Cavafy’s common refrains.

A reader of the Parnassians and the French Symbolists, through this Greek writer’s work a gallery of historical characters unfolds before the reader’s eyes, humanised by his poetic treatment.

In his work, there are anonymous people off the street, and everyday, banal objects that, all of a sudden, are instilled with a profound symbolic value, as when Cavafy’s verses employ the image of burning and extinguished candles to represent the course of life.

Below is an extract from one of his most famous pieces, “Poem of Ithaca”, which confirms his position as one of the greatest poets in universal culture:

“When you set off for Ithaca, / wish for the road to be long, / full of adventures, full of learning. / Don’t fear the Laistrygonians and the Cyclops, / nor the angry Poseidon, / for you will never meet such things on your way / if your thoughts remain lofty, your spirit / and body touched by fine emotions. /

“You will never meet the angry Poseidon, / the Laistrygonians and the Cyclops, / unless you bear them within your soul, / unless your soul sets them down in your path.” (PL)

(Translated by Elizabeth Dann – elizabethdann@blueyonder.co.uk) – Photos: Pixabay

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