Constantine P. Cavafy, also known as Konstantin or Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis, or Kavaphes (Greek Κωνσταντßνος Π. ΚαβÜφης) (April 29, 1863 – April 29, 1933) was a Greek poet who is often included in the most important literary figures of the 20th century. He also worked as a journalist and civil servant.
Cavafy has been called as a skeptic and a neo-pagan. In his poetry he examines critically some aspects of Christianity, patriotism, and heterosexuality, 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.
Cavafy was born in the year 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents. His father was a prosperous importer-exporter who had lived in England in earlier years and acquired British nationality. After his father died in 1870, Cavafy and his family settled, for a while, in Liverpool, UK; he moved back to Alexandria in 1877 after the economic problems the family had faced in the crash of 1876.
Disturbances there in 1882 caused the family again temporarily to move, this time to Constantinople. The fleets of England and France interfere with Egypt and Alexandria was bombarded by an English battleship (the family flat at Ramli was burned). In 1885 Cavafy returned to Alexandria, where he lived for the rest of his life. He worked at 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, a new generation of almost nihilist poets (e.g. Karyotakis) would find inspiration in Cavafy's work. He died on April 29, 1933, his 70th birthday.
Since his death, Cavafy's reputation has grown. He is now considered one of the finest modern Greek poets .
A biographical note written by Cavafy: "I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria — at a house on Seriph Street; I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England. Subsequently I visited this country as an adult, but for a short period of time. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece. My last employment was as a clerk at a government office under the Ministry of Public Works of Egypt. I know English, French, and a little Italian."
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. A recluse, he was virtually unknown until late in life.
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.
His poetry is now taught at schools in Greece.
Cavafy's poem "The God Abandons Antony" (1911) was adapted by Leonard Cohen for the latter's song "Alexandra Leaving" (Ten New Songs, 2002).  But whereas Cavafy's original focus was on the city of Alexandria, Cohen's version concerns a man's loss of a woman named Alexandra.
One of the most important works that Cavafy wrote was in 1904 when he wrote "Waiting for the Barbarians". The work has since been used to signify the invisible foes that we must face in life. He also wrote in 1911 "Ithaca" that covers the road traveled to return to the famous island that was depicted in Homer's Illiad. Its main theme as you travel is to enjoy the journey and not just the destination and that maturity of your soul is all we can ask for.
Cavafy's work is divided by himself into three categories:
These poems are mainly inspired by the Hellenestic era with Alexandria at primary focus. Other poems originate from Helleno-romaic antiquity and the Byzantine era. Mythological references are also present. The periods chosen are mostly of decline and decadence (eg Trojans); his heroes phasing the final end.
The sensual poems are filled with lyricism and emotion; inspired by recollection and rememberance. The past and former actions, sometimes along with the vision for the future consist the muse of Cavafy in writing these poems.
Also called instructive poems they are divided into poems with consultations to poets and poems that deal with other situations such as closure (eg The walls), debt (eg Thermopylae), human dignity (eg The God abandons Antony) etc
Selections of Cavafy's poems appeared only in pamphlets, privately printed booklets and broadsheets during his lifetime. The first publication, in book form, was
- ΠοιÞματα (Piimata, or 'Poems of C.P. Cavafy') in Alexandria, 1935.
The most effective translation of Cavafy into English is by Rae Dalven. Robert Liddell's biography is the best known one in English, and an evocative, minor masterpiece in the genre.
- The Complete Poems of Cavafy translated by Rae Dalven
- C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis
- Before Time Could Change Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P.Cavafy translated by Theoharis C. Theoharis
- Cavafy's Alexandria by Edmund Keeley
- Cavafy: A Critical Biography by Robert Liddell
- "Alexandria: City of Memory" by Michael Haag (published by Yale University Press, London and New Haven, 2004) provides a portrait of the city during the first half of the twentieth century and a biographical account of Cavafy and his influence on E.M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell.
C.P. Cavafy appears as a character in the Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell.