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literature

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Cavafy, C. P. (1863-1933)  
 
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Gay male readers have had a particular interest in Cavafy's erotic poetry, which constitutes a considerable fraction of his canon. In the early poem "Candles" (written 1893), Cavafy expresses his fear that the days to come are now falling behind him like a gloomy line of burnt-out candles. The reader is allowed much latitude in interpretation, but one can see here a fear of losing the opportunity to live life to the fullest, perhaps through sexual repression.

In "Walls" (1896), the poet complains that he has allowed walls to be built up around him, cutting him off from the outside world. The scenario for the poem is vague, but it can be read as representing Cavafy's complicity in allowing himself to repress his sensual side. "The Windows" (1897) presents the poet wandering around, hoping to find windows to his closed room, at the same time fearing that light may prove another tyranny.

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Cavafy made a breakthrough in five poems from the period late 1893 to early 1904 that he chose not to publish. Although he does not give the gender of the beloved or sex partner (and this remains the case in much of his erotic poetry), the situations can be easily read in a gay male context.

In "September, 1903," the poet is sad that he cannot raise up the courage to approach the dreamlike body of the one he desires. "December, 1903" notes that he cannot speak of his love; all he can acknowledge is that his beloved permeates his manner of speaking. In "January, 1904," the poet tries to remember his beloved but fails. This is just one of many poems in which the memory of the beloved seems at least as important as being with him.

"On the Stairs" recounts a brief meeting between the poet and a man he could have picked up as they passed on the stairs of a house of ill fame. Neither was satisfied by the casual pleasures of the establishment, but neither had the courage to seek out the tenderness of the other. The poet of "At the Theater" comments on the beauty of the youth he sees during a performance, and he is just one of many handsome young men who populate Cavafy's erotic poetry.

In "Growing in Spirit," written in June 1903, the poet had already declared that in order to develop emotionally one must pass beyond laws and customs. Such a person will learn from sensual pleasures and not grow timid before the destructive acts that tear half one's house down in order to build for the future.

In their notes to the unpublished poems selected for translation in Passions and Ancient Days, Keeley and Savidis quote from a note in English of November 25, 1903, first published in the primarily Greek-language volume, Anekdota Peza (Unpublished Prose), in which Cavafy indicates his love for A. M., or Alexander Mavroudis, a minor Athenian poet who later moved to Paris, where he became a playwright under the pen name of Alex Madis.

Apparently, Cavafy fell in love with him "perhaps without telling" on his trip to Athens in 1903. The two-paragraph note associates "September, 1903" and "December, 1903" with his feelings for Mavroudis, mentions two other men he loved only as "Sul." and "Bra.," and connects the poems "Windows" and "Walls" to his romantic longings.

The twenty-one erotic poems of 1904 to 1915, which were published privately from 1912 to 1918, and then made available to the wider public in the first edition of the canonical poems, edited by Singopoulos in 1935, present sexual encounters that are sometimes fulfilling and sometimes unhappy.

In "Come Back" (written 1904), the poet asks his beloved to return and take hold of him. "I Went" (1905) shows the speaker going to the world of forbidden pleasures. "One Night" (1907) juxtaposes the cheapness of a sordid room with the fleeting, intoxicating passion the poet experienced there.

The later poem "Understanding" (1915) can also be related to this series. The poet looks back at the sensual life of his younger days and resists the temptation to regret his dissolute youth since in his loose living his work as a poet was founded.

Cavafy's later erotic poetry continues to play variations on these same themes; it does not move in striking new directions. But the noncanonical "The Bandaged Shoulder" (1919) is unique in its explicitness. The poet takes the bloody rag of a wounded soldier to his lips, for the blood confirms his love for the injured man.

The voyeuristic "Days of 1908" (pub. 1932), the last erotic poem, is notable for the poet's evocation of the memory of a beautiful young man whom he watched strip naked for bathing. In many of the poems, the difference in ages between lover and beloved is pronounced. None of the poems concern a mutual love or a committed partnership.

Cavafy's corpus of erotic poems was not widely known in English-speaking countries until Mavrogordato published the first complete translation of the canonical poems in 1951. Because Cavafy wrote in Greek, he is too often omitted from surveys of twentieth-century gay male literature. But such an omission is particularly unfortunate since Cavafy has written some of the greatest poetry of all time.

Although some of the poems indicate guilty feelings about sex and others portray a world of one-night stands in seedy quarters, the overall tone of the entire canon is one of acceptance of gay male sexuality and a recognition that personal and artistic creativity can spring from what the bourgeois world may consider decadent or unrewarding encounters.

Peter G. Christensen

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    Bibliography
   

Alexiou, Margaret. "Eroticism and Poetry." Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora [Special Cavafy issue]. 10.1-2 (Spring-Summer 1983): 45-65.

Beaton, Roderick. "Cavafy and Proust." Grand Street 6.2 (Winter 1987): 127-141.

Bien, Peter. "Cavafy's Homosexuality and His Reputation Outside Greece. Journal of Modern Greek Studies 8.2 (Oct. 1990): 197-211.

Forster, E. M. "The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy." Pharos and Pharillon. Richmond: Surrey: Hogarth Press, 1923. 110-117.

Friar, Kimon. "Cavafis and His Translators into English." Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 5 (Spring 1978): 17-40.

Harvey, Denise, ed. The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy: Essays on His Life and Work. Athens: Denise Harvey & Co., 1983.

Jusdanis, Gregory. The Poetics of Cavafy: Textuality, Eroticism, History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987.

Kapre-Karka, K. Love and the Symbolic Journey in the Poetry of Cavafy, Eliot, and Seferis: An Interpretation with Detailed Poem-by-Poem Analysis. New York: Pella, 1982.

Keeley, Edmund. Cavafy's Alexandria: Study of a Myth in Progress. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1976.

Liddell, Robert. Cavafy: A Critical Biography. London: Duckworth, 1974.

Liddy, Mark. "The Poems of Constantine Cavafy." Gay Men's Literature in the Twentieth Century. London: Macmillan, 1993. 33-52.

Michals, Duane. Homage to Cavafy. Danbury, N.H.: Addison House, 1978.

Pinchin, Jane Lagoudis. Alexandria Still: Forster, Durrell, and Cavafy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977.

Robinson, Christopher. C. P. Cavafy. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1988.

Yourcenar, Marguerite. "A Critical Introduction to Cavafy." "The Dark Brain of Piranesi" and Other Essays. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1984. 154-198.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Christensen, Peter G.  
    Entry Title: Cavafy, C. P.  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 21, 2006  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/cavafy_cp.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
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Chicago, IL   60607
 
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    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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