Constantine Cavafy

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.

Constantine P Cavafy, “The City”, 1894, Alexandria, Egypt, Published 1910

Born in Alexandria, Egypt in April of 1863, Constantine Petrou Cavafy, upon the death of his father in 1870, moved with his family to Liverpool, England, where the eldest sons assumed control of the family’s import-export business. He spent most of his adolescence in England, developing in those seven years both a command of the language and a preference for the writings of William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.

After the older brothers mismanaged the family’s business, Cavafy’s mother moved the family back to Alexandria, living there until 1882 when the British bombarded the city. The family moved to safety in Constantinople where Cavafy remained with his mother until 1885. Although living in great poverty and discomfort during this period, he was writing his first poems, and had his first love affairs with other men.

After he reunited with his brothers back in Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy found work initially as a newspaper correspondent. He obtained a position in the late 1880s as an assistant at the Egyptian Stock Exchange, working there for a few years before clerking, at the age of twenty-nine, at the Ministry of Public Works. Cavafy stayed at the ministry for the next thirty years, eventually becoming the ministry’s assistant director. Much of his ambition during those years was devoted to writing poems and prose essays.

Constantine Cavafy lived with his mother until her death in 1899, and then with his unmarried brothers. For most of his mature years, he lived alone. Although his social circle was unusually small, Cavafy did maintain an influential twenty-year literary relationship with English fiction writer and essayist Edward Morgan Forster. Cavafy, himself, identified only two apparently brief love affairs. His one intimate, long-standing friendship was with Alexander Singopoulos, whom Cavafy designated as his heir and literary executor, ten years before his death from cancer in April of 1933.

During his lifetime, Constantine Cavafy was an obscure poet, publishing little of his work and living in seclusion. A short pamphlet collection of fourteen poems was printed in the early 1904, and reprinted a few years later with new verse. Cavafy’s poems were first published in book form ,without dates, before World War II and reprinted in 1949. The only evidence of his public recognition in Greece was his receiving, in 1926, the Order of the Phoenix from the Greek dictator Pangalos.

One third of Constantine Cavafy’s work was never printed in his lifetime. His lack of concern for publication might be due to the highly personal aspect of many of his poems. Cavafy was gay and wrote many sexually explicit poems, making no attempt to conceal anything. The erotic world he depicted was one of casual pickups and short-lived affairs, moments of pleasure not unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt.

An avid student of ancient civilizations and history, Cavafy wrote a great many of his poems treating life during the Greek and Roman empires. The style of his poems were not typical of the times; his language was flat and direct, whether he was talking about beauty, despair, eroticism, the past, or present anxieties. Among Cavafy’s most acclaimed poems are “Waiting for the Barbarians, “Ithaca” which stresses the importance of the journey over the destination, and “The Battle of Magnesia, emphasizing that decadence in a civilization leads to destruction.

Cavafy’s erotic poems have similar themes to those in his historical poems. The lovers work in dull offices, or for shopkeepers; they meet “On the Stairs”, “At the Theater”, “At the Cafe Door”, or in front of “The Windows of the Tobacco Shop”. They often are forced to beg and give their bodies for the worldly rewards. Cavafy’s erotic poems are his personal vision, one which explores the gratifications and the ramifications of the pursuit of pleasure.

Notes: “The City” zeroes in on the notion of human error and the places that remind us of the folly of our judgment. The speaker is addressing a friend, reiterating the friend’s declarations in the first stanza, and then offering the hard truths in the second stanza. The city triggers memory, keeps receipts, and preserves the details of personal tragedy and transgression, until the demons are exorcised. There will be no erasure of the past, expect the permanency of scars; but those are indicators of healing.

It is recorded that C. P Cavafy’s last motion before dying was to draw a circle on a sheet of blank paper, and then to place a period in the middle of it.

The video clip is from the Greek television series “Thus Spake the City- Episode Five, Alexandria” directed by Yannis Smaragdis.

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