Constantine Cavafy was born on April 29, 1863 in Alexandria, the last of seven sons of well-to-do parents who had come to Egypt from Constantinople. The death of his father, when Cavafy was nine, left the family in financial difficulties; for a number of years afterward the widow Cavafy and her younger sons lived, dependent on the generosity of relatives, in England. (It was there that Cavafy acquired the British accent that, we are told, colored his Greek.) The family resettled in Alexandria when Cavafy was fourteen, and with the exception of a three-year sojourn with relations in Constantinople in the 1880s, he lived there for the rest
of his life.
In 1892, Cavafy obtained a position with the Ministry of PublicWorks, in an office with a comically Dantesque name, the ‘‘Third Circle of Irrigation’’; he remained there until his retirement, thirty years later. At around the same time he began publishing articles and poems
in newspapers and literary journals. These early publications already bear witness to a deep, even scholarly interest in all phases of Greek history, from the Classical and Hellenistic periods to Late Antiquity and Byzantium, which would provide the subjects for many of his mature poems. During the same formative period Cavafy lived with his mother, Haricleia, dutifully dining with her most evenings and escaping afterward into the city’s homosexual demimonde. This world of furtive yearnings and clandestine encounters would provide him with his other great subject: desire between men.
Eventually Cavafy settled into an antique-crammed apartment on the Rue Lepsius – today the Cavafy Museum – where he would hold forth to friends and guests, in Greek or English or French, on the erudite subjects he cherished: ‘‘the tricky behavior of the Emperor Manuel Comnenus in 1096,’’ as his friend E. M. Forster recalled, ‘‘or . . . olives, their possibilities and price, or . . . the fortunes of friends, or George Eliot, or the dialects of the interior of Asia Minor.’’ It is to Forster, whom Cavafy met duringWorldWar I in Alexandria, that we owe the most famous description of the idiosyncratic poet: ‘‘a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.’’
A lifelong smoker, Cavafy was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx in 1932. After traveling to Athens for treatment that summer, he returned to his beloved Alexandria, where he died the following year, on his seventieth birthday.
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This volume contains selections from all of Cavafy’s work. PUBLISHED POEMS consists of selections from the three collections that the poet self-published (Poems 1905–1915, Poems 1916–1918, and Poems 1919–1932), as well as from the ‘‘Sengopoulos Notebook,’’ a selection of poems that he prepared for his friend and heir, Alexander Sengopoulos. The REPUDIATED POEMS are early published verses that Cavafy later disowned.UNPUBLISHED POEMS features finished work that the poet did not wish to publish but which he saved in his files; these were first published in 1968. UNFINISHED POEMS is the designation for the thirty nearly complete drafts that the poet left at the time of his death, edited and published in a scholarly Greek edition in 1994.
In the case of selections from the Published Poems, italicized dates at the bottom of each page refer to the year of composition, when known; years in roman type refer to date of original publication.For theUnpublished and Unfinished Poems, the year in brackets at the bottom of the page indicates date of composition, when known.
Copyright © 2014 by C. P. Cavafy; edited and translated with notes by Daniel Mendelsohn. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.