Konstantinos Kavafis: The Hypermodern Greek Poet



Konstantinos Kavafis

Konstantinos Kavafis — or Constantine Peter Cavafy as he was internationally known — was born in Alexandria, Egypt on April 29, 1863, the last of nine children of wealthy merchant Petros-Ioannou Kavafis. He died on the same date 70 years later, in 1933.

In a short autobiography, Kavafis wrote:

“I hail from Constantinople, but I was born in Alexandria – in a house on Sherif Street. When I was very young I left and spent much of my childhood in England. I visited this country after a long time but stayed for a short while. I lived in France too. In my teenage years, I lived for over two years in Constantinople. I had not visited Greece for many years. My last job was as an employee of a government office of the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works. I speak English, French, and a little Italian.”

Kavafis never published his poems in book form. Instead, he preferred to give them to newspapers and magazines to publish, or handwrote them and gave them away to anyone who was interested.

He wrote 154 poems and dozens of sketches and left behind numerous unfinished pieces. The first book of his poems was published in 1935, two years after his death.

Kavafis lost his father at the age of seven, the death forcing his mother Harikleia to take the family and move to London and then to Liverpool. The young Konstantinos learned English and cultivated an interest in literature. Financial problems forced the family to move again in 1878, this time back to Alexandria.

In 1882 the nationalist riots in Egypt made the Kavafis family relocate to Constantinople this time. During his stay in Constantinople, he made the first systematic efforts to write poetry. His first poem in his archives seems to have been written in 1882. The poems Beizades to His Mistress (1884), Dunya Guzeli (1884) and Nihori (1885) show that the city had inspired him.

In October 1885 Kavafis returned to Alexandria, along with his mother and his two brothers, Alexander and Paul, after receiving compensation for the disasters of 1882.

One of his first decisions was to acquire Greek citizenship. He begins to work first as a journalist and then as a broker on the Cotton Stock Exchange. In 1889 he was initially recruited as an unpaid secretary to the Irrigation Service and from 1892 as a salaried employee, a post in which he would remain until 1922, reaching the rank of Deputy Mayor.

In 1891, Kavafis saw his first remarkable poem (Builders) published. From 1893 until the end of the century he wrote some of his most important pieces, such as Candles (1893), Walls (1896) and Waiting for the Barbarians (1899). In 1899, his mother passed away, and Kavafis wallowed in grief for a long time.

In 1902 he traveled to Greece for the first time and it was in Athens where he met his colleagues Grigorios Xenopoulos and Ioannis Polemis. In a letter he wrote upon arriving in Athens, he said he felt like a Muslim pilgrim who goes to Mecca.

The next year he visited Athens again, and on Nov. 30 of the same year, Xenopoulos writes in Panathenaea magazine the historical article A Poet, which is the first praiseful presentation of Kavafis’ work to the Greek public.

In December 1907, Kavafis settled in the house on 10 Lepsius Street in Alexandria, where he would spend the rest of his life, writing the most important poems of his oeuvre. With his reputation constantly rising, he received many famous visitors in his house, such as Tommaso Marinetti, Andres Malraux, Nikos Kazantzakis, Kostas Ouranis and Myrtiotissa.

In 1911 he wrote his famous poem, Ithaca. In 1914 he met the great English novelist Edward Morgan Forster became friends with him. Five years later, Forster will introduce the poetry of Kanafis to English audiences.

In April 1922 he resigned from his work as a public servant to dedicate himself to his poetry. “At last, I was released from that hateful thing,” he wrote.

In the following year his last living brother, John Kavafis, died. John had been the first admirer and translator of Konstantinos’ work.

In 1926, the Greek government awarded him the medal of the Order of the Phoenix. In 1930 he began to suffer from larynx problems and doctors diagnosed cancer. Kavafis soon became unable to speak and in 1932 he was subjected to a tracheotomy operation in Athens.

In 1933 he returned to Alexandria, with his health constantly deteriorating. In early April he was transferred to the Hellenic Hospital and at 2 a.m. of April 29, 1933, the poet gave his last breath at the age of 70.

“Konstantinos Kavafis is a hypermodern poet, a poet for later generations,” scholar Maria Akritidou wrote about the great man’s work.

“Apart from its historical, psychological and philosophical value, the austerity of his style, which sometimes touches on laconism, his weighted enthusiasm that appeals to the emotional intellectualism, his correct phrasing, the result of a classy naturalness, his slight irony, represent elements which will be further appreciated by future generations, motivated by the progress of the discoveries and the subtlety of the mental mechanism.”