Constantine P. Cavafy

Ivor Griffiths, Poet, Novelist & Short Story Writer

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. Constantine P. Cavafy

Cavafy, around 1900 in Alexandria, Egypt
Born: April 29, 1863
Alexandria, Egypt
Died: April 29, 1933
Flag of Egypt Alexandria, Egypt
Occupation: Poet, journalist, civil servant

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.


  • 1 Biography
  • 2 Work
    • 2.1 Historical poems
    • 2.2 Sensual poems
    • 2.3 Philosophical poems
  • 3 Bibliography
  • 4 Notes
  • 5 External links


Cavafy was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, to Greek parents, and was baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church. 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 financial problems the family had faced in the crash of 1876.

Disturbances there in 1882 caused the family again temporarily to move, this time to Istanbul. The fleets of England and France interfered with Egypt, and when Alexandria was bombarded by an English battleship, 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, 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: "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 was homosexual. His most well known relationship was with Alexander Singopoulos.

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.


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". 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 voyage to return to the famous island that was depicted in Homer's Odyssey. Its main theme is the enjoyment of the journey over the destination and that maturity of the soul is all one can ask for.

Cavafy divides his own work into three categories:

Historical poems

These poems are mainly inspired by the Hellenistic 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 facing the final end.

Sensual poems

The sensual poems are filled with lyricism and emotion; inspired by recollection and remembrance. The past and former actions, sometimes along with the vision for the future consist the muse of Cavafy in writing these poems.

Philosophical poems

Also called instructive poems they are divided into poems with consultations to poets and poems that deal with other situations such as closure (for example, "The walls"), debt (for example, "Thermopylae"), and human dignity (for example, "The God Abandons Antony").


Selections of Cavafy's poems appeared only in pamphlets, privately printed booklets and broadsheets during his lifetime. The first publication, in book form, was Ποιήματα (Piimata, or Poems of C.P. Cavafy) published in Alexandria, 1935.

  • 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.
  • Cavafy a literary form of the script of «Cavafy» the film, by Iannis Smaragdis

C.P. Cavafy appears as a character in the Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell.

  • The Weddings Parties Anything song 'The Afternoon Sun' is based on the Cavafy poem of the same title.


  • "The official website of the Cavafy Archive" (in Greek)
  • A comprehensive website, including a biography, a gallery, bibliography, news and extensive selections of poetry in English and Greek
  • Cavafy in English and Greek, Select Online Resources
  • W. H. Auden's Introduction to Cavafy's poems
  • Audio introduction to Cavafy's poems In English, with examination of ten of his finest poems
  • The Cavafy Museum in Alexandria
  • Cavafy: surviving immortality
  • "Artificial Flowers" — translations by Peter J. King & Andrea Christofidou
  • Extensive collection of poems, in English & Greek & audio
  • A search engine named in honor of the poem "Ithaki"
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