The Poetry of Constantine Cavafy
been present in the city for over two thousand years, were
prospering, his father's family among them. But when Constantine was seven, his
father died and his family moved for a while to Liverpool, UK, where his
father had run a business and acquired British nationality.
March 2010: If there is a list of ten best-ever gay poets, it must include Constantine Cavafy. If there is a list of ten-best
every poets, it must include Constantine Cavafy. In the whole of his life (he died on his
seventieth birthday, on 29 April 1933), he
completed only 154 poems, and during the same period he published none of them, except in
small booklets that he had privately printed to give to friends.
Cavafy was born in Alexandria in the middle of the nineteenth century, at a time
when the Greeks, who had
The beauty of Cavafy's work resides in both substance and form - what he says and how
he says it. If we start with his words and style, we are immediately at a loss, because
the rhythm of his Greek is impossible to translate (and there are other problems
connected with translation that we will come across).
Therein lies the first of Cavafy's many paradoxes - he was a Greek who
spent almost no time in Greece and who spoke English
better than Greek, yet he wrote a small number of poems that - after years of being ignored by
the literary establishment of his time - laid the framework for modern Greek
Financial problems forced the family to move from Liverpool back Alexandria,
then war uprooted them to Constantinople (modern Istanbul - at the time host to another
significant Greek population). Only in 1885, did he return to Alexandria, where
Cavafy lived for the rest of his life, working briefly as a journalist and then
as a civil servant for thirty years (working for the British, who ran Egypt as a
protectorate until 1926). During this period, he wrote - and rewrote and rewrote
again - some of the most beautiful poetry that has ever been committed to paper.
Cavafy in later life. The British writer E M Forster
described him perfectly as "a man standing at slight angle
to the universe"
Let us admit from the start that modern Greek is not beautiful; its vowels are limited and
its consonants are thick with ch(χ) and gh(γ), th(θ) and dh(δ), ks(ξ) and ps(ψ). It
sounds, to untrained ears, like Italian without the music. But what it lacks in beauty it
makes up in strength, particularly in rhythm. It is a language particularly suited to
poetry and song. And Cavafy makes full use of that strength to produce poems that are
brief and clear, often no more than a dozen lines long.
Here, for example, are the opening lines to The City transliterated with
the stresses marked:
Éépes, tha págho s'állee yee, tha págho s'állee thálassa
Meea pólees állee tha vrethéé kallééteree ap' avtéé
(You said, I'll go to another country, I'll go to another sea
There will be another city better than this one.)
What makes the original so strong - and so difficult to render in translation - is the
insistent beat that comes out of the repetition of the á and éé sounds.
That beat conveys the determination of the speaker resolved to leave a town that he
considers has destroyed. The second verse, where another voice - perhaps the
speaker's conscience, perhaps his friend, perhaps Fate - tells him that wherever he goes
he will find the same fate, has the same beat, but now with stressed, long u sounds
that signify ultimate defeat.
Other poems are softer and use language that whispers or laughs or conspires, but
which all beg to spoken aloud, declaimed before an audience. And while attempts at
translation can be made, nothing approaches the strength of words in the original.
Fortunately, although Cavafy's form lies tantalisingly beyond the reach of those unfamiliar with Greek, his
meaning comes shining through in every language. And it is here that he deserves his title of one
of the world's greatest ever poets, gay or otherwise.
The poet himself divided his work into three, often overlapping categories -
historical, sensual and philosophical. The historical poems draw upon incidences, often
obscure, in Greek history. To take typical examples: The Alexandrian Kings
looks at the moment when Cleopatra's children were declared kings with all due
pomp and ceremony; The Serapion Priest reveals a Christian priest in the 4th
century CE mourning for his dead, pagan, father; and 200 BCE gives us the
Greeks bitching (there is no other word) about the Spartans.
The philosophical poems are often set in ancient times. The City (above) is
an exception, but two of the most famous are Ithaca, telling of Odysseus' long
journey home after the Trojan war, and The God abandons Antony. One of Cavafy's
longer poems, Ithaca, is nothing less than a metaphor for life, pointing out
that whatever our destination, it is the journey that matters, the journey which brings us
joys and hardship, the journey, not the destination, which is meaningful.
The God abandons Antony takes a similar stance as the poet whispers in Mark
Antony's ear that although he has lost Alexandria and his plans
are no more than illusions, stand strong and proud and bid farewell to the city that
he is losing.
Our future days stand before us
Like a row of glowing little candles -
Golden, warm and lively little candles.
Days past wait behind us,
A mournful line of extinguished candles
The nearest still guttering smoke,
cold candles, melted and bent.
I do not want to see them; their shape saddens me,
As it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look to my lit candles ahead.
I do not want to turn lest I see and shudder at
How quickly the dark line lengthens,
How quickly the dead candles multiply.
translation: Martin Foreman
And the sensual poems? They were sensual indeed, but they were also gay. Cavafy was - understandably for a man of
his time and position - coy and made full use of a language that allowed the
gender of the protagonist or observer to remain unspoken. Like early Pet Shop Boys songs, where the
innocent thought that the person being addressed was a woman but the knowledgeable knew
that the situations described could only involve two men, Cavafy's description of
quick, hidden love affairs, of good-looking men, of suppressed desires, of
remembered loves, all of these could only ever be gay. Here are some extracts
There is the completely voluptuous tone
he wanted to put into it when he
was painting the eyes,
when he was painting the lips . . . His mouth, the lips
are made for consummation, for exquisite love-making.
from 'Picture of a twenty-three year old'
He is fully devoted to his books
but he is twenty-three and
and this afternoon love passed
through his ideal flesh
from 'He came to read'
Body, remember not only how much you were loved
not merely the beds where you lay
but remember too those desires which for you
in open eyes
and trembled in the voice.
from 'Remember, body'
So much I gazed on beauty
that my vision is replete with it . . . Faces of love, as my poetry
wanted them . . . in the nights of my youth
in my nights, secretly we met
from 'So much I gazed on beauty'
Since nine o'clock when I lit the lamp
the shade of my young body
has come to haunt me,
to remind me
of shut scented rooms,
of past sensual pleasure - what daring pleasure.
from 'Since Nine O'Clock'
If Cavafy excels at memory, at sensuality, at lust, where he fails
- because, it seems, he never experienced it - is romantic love. None of his poems
describe the agonies and the ecstasies of sharing one's life with another human being
for more than the hour or two spent in a common bed. For him, love is purely physical, the heart yearns not for another heart or mind but for the perfection of a young body and the ecstasy it offers.
But we cannot complain, because for all of us there is a time in our life when all our emotions, all our intelligence crystallise in this one overwhelming desire and need to share our bodies and to rejoice in the body of another. By holding a up mirror to our deepest carnality, Cavafy shows us its beauty and its strength.
more about Greece:
Ancient Greece Sunday Morning (1975) Nikolas and Nikos (2010)