See translations by R. Dalven (1961), E. Keeley and P. Sherrard (1975, rev. bilingual ed. 2009), and D. Mendelsohn (2009); memoir and translations by M. Kolaitis (1980); biography by R. Liddell (1974, repr. 2002); studies by K. Kapre-Karka (1982), G. Jusdanis (1987), and J. P. Anton (1995).
Learn more about Cavafy, Constantine with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Constantine P. Cavafy, also known as Konstantin or Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, or Kavaphes (Greek Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης) (April 29, 1863–April 29, 1933) was a major Greek poet who worked as a journalist and civil servant. He has been called a skeptic and a neo-pagan. In his poetry he examines critically some aspects of Christianity, patriotism, and homosexuality, though he was not always comfortable with his role as a nonconformist. He published 154 poems; dozens more remained incomplete or in sketch form. His most important poetry was written after his fortieth birthday.
Disturbances in Alexandria in 1882 caused the family again temporarily to move, this time to Constantinople. When a revolt against Anglo-French control of Egypt broke out in Alexandria precipating the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, Alexandria was bombarded by an English fleet and the family apartment at Ramli was burned. In 1885, Cavafy returned to Alexandria, where he lived for the rest of his life. He worked first as a journalist, then for the British-run Egyptian Ministry of Public Works for thirty years. (Egypt was a British protectorate until 1926.) From 1891 to 1904 he published his poetry in broadsheet form, only for his close friends, receiving whatever acclaim mainly within the Greek community in Alexandria. He was introduced to mainland-Greek literary circles through a favourable review by Xenopoulos in 1903, but got little recognition, his style being very different from then-mainstream Greek poetry. Only 20 years later, after the Greek defeat in the Greco-Turkish War (1919-1922), a new generation of almost nihilist poets (e.g. Karyotakis) would find inspiration in Cavafy's work. He died of cancer of the larynx on April 29 1933, his 70th birthday.
A biographical note written by Cavafy reads as follows:
It is generally accepted that Cavafy was homosexual and gay themes appear in a number of his poems.
Since his death, Cavafy's reputation has grown. He is now considered one of the finest modern Greek poets. His poetry is now taught at schools in mainland Greece and throughout the world in Universities.
In 1996 Yannis Smaragdis made a movie about his life. Unfortunately this film is only available in Greece in a non subtitled version.
Cavafy has been 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 a role 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 almost completely lost in translation. 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 an enormous knowledge of history, especially of the Hellenistic era. Many of his poems are either 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". This work, in the person of a disingenuous Byzantine narrator, cynically explores the view that cultivating fear of an invisible external enemy usually serves internal purposes. Parallels have been drawn between the poem's message and the war on terror. In 1911, he wrote Ithaca, inspired by the Homeric return journey of Odysseus to his home island, as depicted in the Odyssey. The poem's theme is that the enjoyment of the journey of life, and the increasing maturity of the soul as that journey continues, is all the traveler can ask.
Cavafy divides his own work into three categories:
Volumes with translations of Cavafy's poetry in English include:
Translations of Cavafy's poems are also included in