What made C. P. Cavafy write some of the most original poetry in the world? I went to Athens in January 2015 to find out.
Born in Alexandria on April 29, 1863, Cavafy died there, on the same day seventy years later. He came from a prosperous family with aristocratic roots but, when he was a child, his family lost this fortune and, as an adult, he found work as a civil servant.
The Cavafy we know from his mature poetry—he published only 154 poems of the hundreds he had written—seems emotionally distant, dedicated only to his craft. Though he enjoyed company, received visitors regularly, and was admired as a conversationalist, he lived a loveless life.
The letters from his adulthood, often terse, lack affection, personal indiscretion, or self-revelation. Contemporaries paint a picture of a sociable person, eager to talk about his poetry or ancient history but one devoid of intimate friends. No one described him as a loving or empathetic person.
I was greatly surprised, therefore, to discover material that presents a different Cavafy, at least in his youth.
For instance, in a letter to his friend, Pericles Anastasiadis, housed in the ELIA Archive, Cavafy appears as a compassionate friend. Written in English sometime in the 1890’s and sent to Paris where Peri was traveling, the letter exists only in draft form with sentences crossed out, others added, and many words composed in short hand. Reading it is like reading his poem “In the Month of Athyr,” in which a modern reader tries to interpret an ancient inscription.
From my attempts to decipher the text, Cavafy appears to console his friend. He speaks of sorrow, referring perhaps to a death of a family member, friend, or a lover. I’m not sure.
Cavafy opens the letter by saying that he misses Peri “awfully.” After many years of friendship, they “have become necessary for each other.” He writes warmly and empathetically, especially about the unspecified loss. He advises: “Try and compose your soul during this short period of comparative freedom. I would not ask to cease remembering—forgetting is a great wrong to the [?] but to remember without bitterness.”
Cavafy says that he is no stranger to loss, having felt it “too keenly.” Indeed, we know that in addition to forfeiting his family fortune and social standing, he had to attend many funerals: His father died in 1870, his mother 1899; his brothers Petros Ioannis 1891, Georgos, 1900, Aristidis 1902, Alexandros 1905, Pavlos 1920, and John 1923. He lost two close friends in their early twenties. Death was an old familiar.
Critics have often speculated about the effects these bereavements must have had on the poet. In my research this winter I have found evidence of this: the journal of Phillipos Dragoumis, a future lawyer and politician, who visited Cavafy in the spring and summer of 1916.
In his diary Dragoumis writes that Cavafy “thirsted in his isolation for a companion who would understand him.” Interestingly Cavafy told him that after the loss of a beloved brother, he “withdrew from the world and lived like an ascetic, recalling the old things.” Even if, in reality, he was neither an ascetic nor a melancholic aesthete, his adult life lacked intimate connections.
Cavafy’s confession to Dragoumis suggests that the many deaths made him abandon the worldly life of his youth and turn inward. He fused his fallen social status, his homosexuality, Alexandria, and Greek history into a synthetic theory that excites and persuades today. He made his world and his poetry so Cavafian that, as W. H. Auden noted, anybody looking at his poems would recognize them immediately. And he achieved this roughly by 1910, ironically the year when, according to Virginia Woolf, human character had changed.
Cavafy’s contemporaries were beginning to recognize his path-breaking oeuvre. The poet, Myrtiotissa, wrote about her visit to Cavafy in the early 1920’s, describing his eyes which “come from far distant time and which reveal a mystery unknown to us.” She depicted Cavafy as an exotic being who lived in another epoch but who understood our time and put his stamp on it.
By that time of Myrtiotissa’s visit Cavafy had become well known as an innovative poet. And his reputation was spreading in Europe, thanks in no small measure to the efforts of E. M. Forster who met Cavafy during his stay in Alexandria in 1916-17 and who introduced his poetry to the literati of his time: Leonard and Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, T. E. Lawrence, Arnold Toynbee, Robert Graves. Forster referred to his acquaintance with Cavafy as one of his “triumphs.”
Yet the correspondence between the Englishman and the Greek tells us the type of person Cavafy had become. Forster’s letters are animated, effusive, and revealing. He is anxious about the translations of Cavafy he wants to publish in England. Sometimes he complains of Cavafy’s silence, “I have written to you and sent you two copies of the book [Pharos and Pharillon] and a message via Valassopoulo. Do I get a world in reply? Not a word.”
In another letter he writes that, “you fill my post bag this morning. First and foremost a letter from yourself” and then the proofs to one of the translations. And in his responses Cavafy is cordial but phlegmatic: Thank you for this. I am grateful for that. I appreciate your kindness. Perhaps the most telling letter is about Forster’s recently published A Passage to India. Forster writes, “My book (you will rejoice to hear, like the good friend you are) does well.”
Cavafy replies: “It is an admirable work. It is delightful reading. I like the style. I like the characters. I like the presentation of the environment.” How could Forster not have been disappointed by this unimaginative, colorless, and risk-free judgment?
Cavafy’s responses to Forster reveal that he had turned into a self-interested person who had given up on love. The poet who wrote the letters to Forster does not resemble the person who corresponded with Peri.
This is sad for Cavafy the person but a gain for us. By looking inward, Cavafy turned his life into art. Yet he lived alone and seems to have suffered because of this. In his case, poetry won but love lost.
(I appreciate the permission given to me by the ELIA/MIET Papoutsakis archive to quote from Cavafy’s draft letter. )