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Cavafy, C. P. (1863-1933)  
 
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Constantine P. Cavafy, now regarded as one of the greatest poets to have written in modern Greek, although recognized in his home city during his lifetime, has earned most of his fame since his death. Born into a family of rich Greek merchants in Alexandria, he had an outwardly uneventful life. In 1872, two years after his father's death depleted the family fortune, he went to England with part of his family and remained there between the ages of nine and sixteen.

They returned to Alexandria, but events leading to the bombardment of the city by the British drove them to Constantinople in 1882, where Cavafy remained until 1885, when he went back to the city of his birth and gained employment in the civil service. He seldom left it for the rest of his life, although there were trips to France and England in 1897 and to Greece in 1901, 1905, and 1932.

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Cavafy may have had his first gay experiences in Constantinople, but the details of his sexual life remain vague despite the critical attention devoted to him. He had no long-term companions, and if his erotic poems reflect his actual experiences, most of his sexual encounters must have been fleeting ones.

Cavafy's mother died in 1899, and in 1907, he moved from the family home with one of his brothers, Paul, to an apartment in the Rue Lepsius. Later he lived alone. In this rather seedy location, Cavafy entertained guests and took part in Alexandrian literary life. Indeed, in Lawrence Durrell's novel series The Alexandria Quartet, he is considered the presiding poet of the city.

In 1922, Cavafy, who had made money on the stock exchange and been granted a pension, retired from the Ministry of Irrigation, where he had worked since 1889. He died of cancer of the throat in 1933.

The canon of 154 short poems that Cavafy wanted preserved was published in 1935, two years after his death; this body of work was composed over the years 1896 to 1933. During his lifetime, he published some poetry in periodicals and made little booklets and broadsheets of other poems for distribution to his circle of friends.

In addition, there is a set of thirty-three uncollected early poems from the years 1884 to 1896 and sixty-three other poems that were unpublished in Cavafy's lifetime. These supplementary poems can be found in the revised edition of Rae Dalven's translation (1976), the largest collection in English. Cavafy was a shrewd judge of his own work, and this large body outside the canon adds little to his reputation.

The poetry of Cavafy in one sense constitutes a coming-out story, although its lack of detail keeps it from falling into the category of confessional poetry. In his twenties and thirties, Cavafy tried his hand, unsuccessfully, at heterosexual love poems, but when he was forty years old, he began to be more comfortable with same-sex themes and produced a body of about fifty poems that has made him a significant inspiration for gay and bisexual writers.

E. M. Forster, who met him during World War I while working for the Red Cross in Alexandria, introduced his work to the broader European public, and since then Cavafy has been discussed in essays by such writers as W. H. Auden and Marguerite Yourcenar.

His poetry has been translated by Stephen Spender, Kimon Friar, Edouard Roditi, and James Merrill. It has also inspired etchings by David Hockney (1966) and photographs of male nudes by Duane Michals (1978).

Although Cavafy avoids both rhyme and metaphor, he is not considered an easy poet to translate, partially because of his mixture of old and new word forms. Cavafy's 154 canonical poems are available in translations by John Mavrogordato (1951), Rae Dalven (1st ed. 1961), Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (1975), and Memas Kolaitis (1988), and sizable selections have been issued by Kimon Friar (1973) and George Khairallah (1979).

Of these, only the 1975 edition of Keeley/Sherrard is bilingual, and the 1993 reissue of it dispenses with the Greek originals, revises the translations, and abbreviates the notes. Peter Bien analyzes the work of many of these translators, noting that Khairallah's version is the most explicit sexually.

Cavafy's poems fall into three major categories: historical, philosophical, and erotic. However, there is much overlapping; some of the historical poems are erotic and vice versa.

To the general public, the historical poems, particularly those related to the Hellenistic world of which Alexandria was the capital, constitute Cavafy's chief claim to fame. For these readers, his greatest poems are "The City" (written 1894), "Waiting for the Barbarians" (1898), "The God Abandons Antony" (1910), and "Ithaka" (1910).

Deliberately rejecting Classical Greece in favor of a decadent Hellenism, Cavafy was especially inspired by the last days of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra, and her lover Marc Antony. These poems breathe an air of resignation and evince detachment from ideology and great historical events even as they also imply a kind of nostalgic pessimism. Cavafy's distinctive voice is implicated in his persistent sense of "outsiderness." Forster described him as conveying a sensation of standing "at a slight angle to the universe."

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