Freaks of literature, like freaks of nature, turn up in odd and unpredictable places. Why, after all, should Buenos Aires produce a Borges, Palmero a Lampedusa, Trieste a Svevo? The only—and perfectly unsatisfactory—answer is, Why not! Nothing in the traditions out of which any of these writers derive could have anticipated their becoming, as all did, writers of world interest. No very good explanation is available, really, just the brute fact of their arrival, writing quite unlike anyone else before them and producing enduring work of universal value. As they come upon the scene out of nowhere, neither do these writers begin or leave anything like a tradition behind them. Sui generis, in a class by oneself, is, after all, only another phrase for freakish.

C. P. Cavafy, the Greek poet who lived in the ancient Egyptian city of Alexandria, is another such freak of literature—perhaps the most interesting, idiosyncratic, and unexplainable of them all. Along with Borges, Lampedusa, and Svevo, Cavafy is a poet whose life, whose subject matter, whose point of view is inextricably bound up with his city. “Outside his poems,” the Greek poet and critic George Seferis has said, “Cavafy does not exist.” But without Alexandria, neither would the poems exist: “for me,” Cavafy wrote, referring to Alexandria in “In the Same Place,” one of his late poems, “the whole of you is transformed into feeling.”

Even though he wrote his poems in Greek, there is a sense in which Cavafy was more an Alexandrian than a Greek. Proud though he was of his Greek heritage, he did not in fact care to be described as a Greek, much preferring to be thought a Hellene. Alexandria, that city built by Alexander the Great and ruled by the Ptolemies, the site of Cleopatra’s grandeur and Mark Antony’s destruction, was for centuries the vessel through which so much world history flowed. This, the historical Alexandria, a city always more Mediterranean than Egyptian, was the Alexandria that Cavafy loved. He himself came, through his poetry, to resemble it in being yet another vessel through which history, this time in the form of his extraordinary poetry, flowed.

When Cavafy—whose dates are 1863–1933—lived in Alexandria, it was much less a classical than a preponderantly commercial city. Judeo-Hellenic and Franco-Levantine, it was, in the richly crowded sentence of Patrick Leigh Fermor, “a cosmopolitan, decadent, and marvellous hybrid, old in sin, steeped in history, warrened with intrigue, stuffed with cotton, flashing with cash, strident with cries for baksheesh, restless with conjuring tricks, and, after sunset, murmurous with improper and complicated suggestions.” In his day, Cavafy must have made a few improper and complicated suggestions of his own.

Constantine Cavafy was the youngest of nine children born to a family that, by the time he came into the world, had already seen somewhat better and soon would see much worse days. In partnership with his brother, Cavafy’s father was one of the leading merchants in the Greek colony in Alexandria; the family firm specialized in cotton and textiles. In this colony, all that counted was wealth, which the Cavafys had in sufficient quantity for the young Constantine to be raised with a French tutor and an English nurse in the house. Constantine’s older brothers were sent abroad for their education. Their father, a free spender, died when Cavafy was seven, leaving his wife with very little money and his son with scant memories of him and the mixed blessing of continuing to think himself a rich man’s son. Although the family retained something of its old social standing in Alexandria, having been thought upper-class, its position without wealth would henceforth be insecure, living with only the furniture and the memories of former luxuriance. Later Cavafy would tell E. M. Forster that aristocracy in modern Greece was the sheerest pretense, being built exclusively on cash: “To be an aristocrat there is to have made a corner in coffee in the Piraeus in 1849.”

Cavafy’s mother was now dependent on her sons for survival. At one point, when Cavafy was nine, the family moved to Liverpool, where the family business had a branch. Later the family moved to London, then back to Liverpool, only returning to Alexandria in 1877, when Cavafy was fourteen. In 1882, during the riots of Egyptians against Europeans in Alexandria, the family fled to Constantinople, where it remained for three years. The result was that between the ages of nine and fourteen, Cavafy lived in England, and between nineteen and twenty-two he lived in Turkey. Afterward he returned to Alexandria, where he remained, with infrequent visits to Greece, what might be called a firmly rooted cosmopolitan.

Cavafy, lucky fellow, did not leave many letters behind, nor an extensive diary. He wrote very little prose in his life and easily forbore the literary man’s temptation of autobiography. Little is known about some of the most basic facts of his youth: where, for example, he went to school, apart from a year spent in a commercial school for Greek children in Alexandria. I say “lucky fellow,” for the paucity of biographical information about Cavafy has spared him the cruelty of biographers poking into his life and career chiefly to find ways of advancing their own. The hurdle of intrusive biography is the last that any writer has to jump, and any decent-minded reader nowadays has to hope that the writers he admires will find a way to cheat their biographers. In good part, Constantine Cavafy seems to have done so.

The most complete biography of Cavafy in English is a slender (by contemporary standards) volume of 222 pages by the English writer Robert Liddell. It is mainly concerned with putting to rout a good number of falsifications about Cavafy concocted by Greek writers of Freudian or Marxistical bent. An honest writer, Mr. Liddell has composed a book that, in the nature of the case, is full of “seems” and “supposes.” Thus: “Cavafy seems never to have had confidants, and unfortunately we do not know whether his emotions were in any way involved in his sexual life.” And: “There is no reason to suppose that he was an obsessional homosexual, the slave of his appetites.” Mr. Liddell supplies those facts about Cavafy that can be nailed down, and the scarcity of these facts sets one’s own imagination to work and turns inquiring minds—as The National Enquirer calls them—to the work itself, from which one is left to do one’s best to extrapolate the life.

What is known about Cavafy as a young man is that, upon his return to Alexandria, he had, as Mr. Liddell reports, two things to hide from his friends: “homosexuality and acute poverty.” He did what he could to alleviate the latter by working briefly as a journalist, then as a broker at the city’s Cotton Exchange. (He supplemented his income by dabbling in the market throughout his life.) He began to work in 1889 as an unpaid clerk at the city’s Irrigation Office, in the hope of catching on as a salaried employee, which, after showing his usefulness in dealing with documents in foreign languages, he did about three years later. He remained at the Dantesque-sounding location of the Third Circle of the Irrigation Office until his retirement thirty years later. Robert Liddell speculates that his job at the Irrigation Office gave him the kind of freedom he required.

This was the freedom to be Cavafy, which was a leisurely yet full-time job. E. M. Forster, who was in Alexandria during World War I and who was an early admirer and promoter of Cavafy’s poetry, described Cavafy as a fixture in the city: “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe.” Forster was here describing the poet going either from his home to his office or from his office to his home, perhaps stopping to deliver himself of a sentence of extraordinary syntactical complexity and impressive precision. Cavafy’s home was an apartment in the old Greek quarter on the Rue Lepsius, where he lived after the death of his mother, with whom he had resided until he was thirty-six; on a lower floor was a brothel, not the sole such institution on the street, which was also known as the Rue Clapsius. A hospital and a church were nearby. Cavafy more than once told visitors: “Where could I live better? Below, the brothel caters to the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin. And there is the hospital where we die.”

Cavafy’s was the settled bachelor life of the homosexual homme de lettres. In Alexandria, people remember him as never being in a hurry. He wore dark suits with vests and thick glasses behind which his large eyes were draped by heavy, hooded lids. He lived in an apartment crowded with old furniture and rugs from his mother’s apartment, but, surprisingly for a man steeped in history, not all that many books, and those mostly devoted to ancient Greek history, which he knew exceedingly well. He was an occasional gambler. He is said generally to have paid for his sex; his taste, Robert Liddell reports, ran not to Egyptian or Arab ingénes but to young Greek men. From the ages assigned to the men in his more erotic poems, one gathers that his ideal was that of Greek men in their twenties.

As Cavafy grew older and as his vigor diminished, so did his fear of scandal, and he began writing—and promulgating—poems about the emotions surrounding homosexual love. With age, he grew rather seedy. Owing to the cancer of the larynx that finally killed him, toward the end of his life he walked about with his neck swathed in bandages. He dyed his hair with a solution of his own invention. (Voluptuaries take even less kindly to aging and death than the rest of us, and Cavafy’s early poems show him when still at a young age already imagining himself a dessicated old man.) His conversation was measured, affable, and apparently memorable, judging by the number of people who met him who have recalled various of his utterances. All must have sensed that, in this odd duck Cavafy, they were in the presence of a great man. Right they were, too.

Cavafy would supply a fine if anomolous chapter in a book on the history of literary reputation. He was, at least among the cognescenti, a famous poet who in his lifetime never published a book, or at least never offered one for publication. Early in his career he published only a half dozen of the nearly two hundred poems he had already written, many of which he would later repudiate. (The final Cavafy canon, in Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard’s excellent translation, consists of 175 poems. ) Cavafy later brought together a pamphlet of his own devising consisting of only twenty-one poems, which he gave to relatives and a few friends. “Thereafter,” writes Professor Keeley, who is Cavafy’s best critic, “his method of disseminating his work, along with periodical publication, was through increasingly heavy folders containing broadsheets and offprints, the folders kept up-to-date year after year by Cavafy himself and distributed by his own hand to his select audience of readers, sometimes with revisions inserted by pen.” When Cavafy died at seventy, there was no collected edition of his poems, nor had he left instructions for one.

Edith Wharton once claimed that she was fortunate when young not to have been considered promising: all sorts of pressures were removed. Cavafy took this a step further and claimed that he was fortunate to have been neglected. For one thing, a writer in a society where there are no obvious institutions of recognition for artists is automatically released from currying favor; nor need he worry about expressing things that might be impolitic from the standpoint of advancing his career. For another, in such a society a writer may develop at his own pace; he is unlikely to feel, as he might in a different setting, that if he hasn’t won this prize by that age, or published that much by this age, he is a dismal failure. A neglected poet, in other words, has time to develop.

Cavafy required such time. The watershed year in his career, all his critics recognize, and as he himself would avow, was 1911, when he was forty-eight years old. (By forty-eight, a poet in America should already have had five books of poems published, an NEA and perhaps a Guggenheim grant behind him, be awaiting a MacArthur, and have tenure locked in. By fifty, if on schedule, he already begins to write much worse.) Not only did Cavafy produce a number of his best poems in the year 1911— including “The God Abandons Antony,” “The Glory of the Ptolemies,” and “Ithaka” —but, as if by magic, he had found his style: plain, spare, dramatic.

Cavafy found his subject in the Greek world of the Eastern Mediterranean. Many of the best of his poems are set in the two hundred years following the conquests of Alexander the Great. “The great age of Hellas,” as C. M. Bowra wrote, “was no subject for his subtle taste.” Bowra is surely correct when he adds that Cavafy “was interested not in the great lessons of history but in its smaller episodes, in which he saw more human interest than in the triumphs of heroes.” Cavafy had a splendid instinct for capturing the perfect historical detail that demonstrated the continuity of human nature. Often, the deeper Cavafy’s poetry takes a reader into history the more the poem makes him think of the present. His famous poem “Waiting for the Barbarians,” in which the rulers and citizens of an unnamed ancient city, awaiting at the city walls, are disappointed at the failure of the barbarians to arrive, ends with the lines:


Why this sudden restlessness, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying
so rapidly,
everyone going home so lost in thought?


Because night has fallen and the barbarians
have not come.
And some who have just returned from the
border say
there are no barbarians any longer.


And now, what’s going to happen to us with-
out barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

Today it is difficult to read that poem without thinking of the West vis-à-vis the crumbling of Communism. Great poets write poems applicable to events and situations that they themselves could not ever have foreseen. Cavafy’s achievement was somehow to write outside time by anchoring his writing as firmly as possible inside time.

Style helped Cavafy immensely in this endeavor. Once he hit his stride as a poet, Cavafy’s poems became more and more shorn of ornament. He scarcely ever wrote about nature, and never, à la Lawrence Durrell (another of Cavafy’s admirers), indulged in Middle Eastern exotica. He wrote in modern Greek, of course, but at least one of Cavafy’s critics has suggested that he “thought” his poems in English. (After his early years in England, his Greek was spoken with a slight English accent, and his English, though fluent, was said not to be free of small mistakes—or not always, as an immigrant woman I knew once said, “impeachable.”) Reading Cavafy in translation, one doesn’t feel—despite Robert Frost’s remark about poetry being what is lost in translation —too keen a loss. W. H. Auden has written on this point:

What, then, is it in Cavafy’s poems that survives translation and excites? Something I can only call, most inadequately, a tone of voice, a personal speech. I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it.

In their foreword to the Collected Poems, Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard speak of attending to Cavafy’s “formal concerns, for example his subtle use of enjambment and his mode of establishing rhythm and emphasis through repetition.” But in their limpid translation, Cavafy’s poems read with the clarity and ease of a kind that seems trans-national and outside time. Howard Moss said of Cavafy’s historical poems that “the tone [is] contemporary, but the voice timeless.” Few of Cavafy’s poems are more than two pages long; most are much shorter than that. “Nero’s Deadline,” if not one of his best, is a characteristic Cavafy poem:


Nero wasn’t worried at all when he heard
the utterance of the Delphic Oracle:
“Beware the age of seventy-three.”
Plenty of time to enjoy himself still.
He’s thirty. The deadline
the god has given him is quite enough
to cope with future dangers.

Now, a little tired, he’ll return to Rome—
but wonderfully tired from that journey
devoted entirely to pleasure:
theatres, garden-parties, stadiums  . . .
evenings in the cities of Achaia  . . .
and, above all, the sensual delight of naked
bodies  . . .

So much for Nero. And in Spain Galba
secretly musters and drills his army—
Galba, the old man in his seventy-third year.

This poem demonstrates Cavafy’s stripped-down method, what Joseph Brodsky has called “the economy of maturity”: no imagery, no metrical tricks, no rhyme, no surprising or even striking adjectives, nothing ornate; a flat account of an event is given—sometimes told by a participant in the drama of a poem, sometimes (as here) by an offstage narrator—sometimes but not always with an ironic twist added at the end. “Cavafy,” wrote George Seferis, “stands at the boundary where poetry strips herself in order to become prose.”

But wherein, one might ask, lies the poetry? Often it is in the drama of Cavafy’s poems, but not invariably even in that. Strangely, uniquely, I believe, it lies in the absence of metaphors in Cavafy’s poems. Cavafy’s poems are free from metaphors for the good reason that each of his poems is a metaphor unto itself. In Eliot, in James Joyce, in Yeats, one must, in effect, decode or parse or unpack symbols and myths to extract meaning. The very content of Cavafy’s poems requires no such decoding or parsing or unpacking, to learn that this equals that, or that parallels the other.

Through his irony, sometimes through his drama, with the aid of his historical precision and his refusal of undue emphasis or over-dramatization, Cavafy can take a small historical incident, or even a person of tertiary significance, and raise it or him to an impressive general significance. Easier said than done, of course. The details have to be got exactly right, the meaning of the event described perfectly understood.

One of my favorite among Cavafy’s poems is “Alexandrian Kings,” which is about a ceremony in which Antony declares Cleopatra’s children kings of the known world, which is divided up among them. Kaisarion, the reputed son of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, is declared the most powerful of them all, King of Kings. Cavafy describes the child Kaisarion’s clothes (“dressed in pink silk,/ on his chest a bunch of hya- cinths,/ his belt a double row of amethysts and sapphires,/ his shoes tied with white ribbons/ prinked with rose-colored pearls”). He reports that the ceremony was a theatrical success, but makes plain that, in the eyes of the worldly Alexandrians, who enjoyed the event thoroughly on a day when the sky was “a pale blue,” it was never more than sheer theater: “they know of course what all this was worth,/ what empty words they really were, these kingships.”

Plutarch’s account of the event, told in his life of Mark Antony, is rather different. In it, the emphasis is on the two gold thrones Antony has set up for himself and Cleopatra. Plutarch describes the clothes of Antony and Cleopatra’s children, Alexander and Ptolemy, but not, as does Cavafy, those of Kaisarion. Plutarch tells us that the Alexandrians were offended by the entire performance: “it seemed a theatrical piece of insolence and contempt of his country.” In Cavafy, the Alexandrians are less enraged, more cynical. The entire episode is made all the more poignant by the fact, reported later and laconically by Plutarch, that “so, afterwards, when Cleopatra was dead he [Kaisarion] was killed.” The attention, in Cavafy’s version, is where it ought to be: on the child, who, being history’s plaything, is pure victim.

Is this touching up history? Better perhaps to think it poet’s history. Cavafy, toward the end of his life, declared himself “a historical poet.” He added: “I could never write a novel or a play; but I hear inside me a hundred and twenty-five voices telling me that I could write history.” Living in an ancient city, Cavafy had a feel for history, found his inspirations and deepest perceptions in history. The historian’s function, in this view, is to show what happened in history; the poet’s is to make plain its significance, but in the particular, oddly angled way of poets. In a later poem entitled “Kaisarion,” Cavafy recounts how he came to write “Alexandrian Kings.” He recounts killing an hour or two on a book of inscriptions about the Ptolemies, where he happened to come upon Kaisarion’s name. The poem continues:


Because we know
so little about you from history,
I could fashion you more freely in my mind.
I made you good-looking and sensitive.
My art gives your face
a dreamy, an appealing beauty.
And so completely did I imagine you
that late last night,
as my lamp went out—I let it go out on
purpose—
it seemed you came into my room,
it seemed you stood there in front of me,
looking just as you would have
in conquered Alexandria,
pale and weary, ideal in your grief,
still hoping they might take pity on you,
those scum who whispered: “Too many
Caesars.”

Not all Cavafy’s poems have a classical setting. A handful are set in the Byzantine Empire. A few are of the kind that Marguerite Yourcenar, who translated Cavafy into French, calls his “poems of passionate reflection.” (Only one in the Collected Poems is uncharacteristically comic: “King Claudius,” which considers the Hamlet story from the uncle and step-father’s point of view.) Many more are erotic, some among them plainly autobiographically erotic. Connoisseurs of Cavafy almost unanimously rate this latter category least interesting of the various categories of his poems. One is inclined to agree with Mme Yourcenar that these poems tend toward the sentimental.

To be sure, Cavafy is a highly erotic poet, but his is an eroticism recollected in tranquility. None of his poems is in the least pornographic; all of them are post-coital, and generally offer a reminiscence of one or another lover now gone. The ancient world was scarcely bereft of hedonism, and art and the erotic were there almost everywhere intertwined. So were they in Cavafy’s own conception of poetry. In such poems as “Very Seldom” and “Understanding” (“In the loose living of my early years/ the impulses of my poetry were shaped,/ the boundaries of my art were laid down”), he makes unmistakably clear the importance of his homoerotic life to his art. The erotic in Cavafy takes two forms: it is only fleetingly obtainable—and often not even that—and then it evanesces. Art was for him consolation, at moments even compensation, for all that was unobtainable and lost to him in the erotic realm. In a poem with the telling title of “Half an Hour,” about a lover whom he would never know, one finds the lines: “. . . But we who serve Art,/ sometimes with the mind’s intensity,/ can create—but of course only for a short time—/ pleasure that seems almost physical.”

Joseph Brodsky is probably correct when he says that Cavafy’s poems, without their “hedonistic bias,” would have lapsed into mere anecdotes. Mme Yourcenar, a close student of these matters, felt that Cavafy had gone from the romantic view of homosexuality—“from the idea of an abnormal, morbid experience outside the limits of the usual and the licit”—to the classical view, in which, in her words, “notions of happiness, fulfillment, and the validity of pleasure gain ascendancy.” This, too, on the evidence of the poems, seems probably true. Robert Liddell writes that Cavafy’s homosexuality “made him what he was” and at the same time warns us that “it can be exaggerated and read into his work where it is not present.” Contradictory though it may sound, he is correct on both counts.

Yet the significance of homosexuality in Cavafy’s poetry, in my view, cuts deep. I think his homosexuality helped develop his vision of a world in which, first, the gods are fond of playing tricks on mortals: one of his earliest poems refers to men as “toys of fate,” and another to “this unfair fate.” Second, I think Cavafy’s homosexuality intensified his sense that all that is not art is fated to die in this world. Cavafy’s is a world that is all past and present and no future. Without religion—and, it is true, Cavafy was born into and died with the rites of the Greek Orthodox Church—without religion, which implies a continuous future, who can escape the grim knowledge that human existence is birth, life and loss, death and oblivion? Homosexuals, having no children, who are the key agency of futurity, get this sad news first. It comes to many of the rest of us rather later. The bone knowledge that everything in life is created to disappear is the beginning of what is known as the tragic sense—and Cavafy had this sense in excelsis.

Edmund Keeley makes the point that the tragic sense operates more strongly in Cavafy than does the moral sense. Some commentators have gone further and spoken of Cavafy as amoral. Marguerite Yourcenar speaks of his “absence of moralism,” and E. M. Forster even speaks of his “amoral mind.” Forster wrote:

Courage and cowardice are equally interesting to his amoral mind, because he sees in both of them opportunities for sensation. What he envies is the power to snatch sensation, to triumph over the moment even if remorse ensues. Perhaps that physical snatching is courage; it is certainly the seed of exquisite memories and it is possibly the foundation of art. The amours of youth, even when disreputable, are delightful, thinks Cavafy, but the point of them is not that: the point is that they create the future, and may give to an ageing man in a Rue Lepsius perceptions he would never have known.

Cavafy himself seemed to believe that his sensual experiences—however fleeting, however superficial—gave him not only memories on which he could live for long afterwards but put him outside time. One sees this in a poem such as “Very Seldom,” written in 1914, when Cavafy was only forty-one but surely anticipating his own old age:


He’s an old man. Used up and bent,
crippled by time and indulgence,
he slowly walks along the narrow street.
But when he goes inside his house to hide
the shambles of his old age, his mind turns
to the share in youth that still belongs to him.

His verse is now recited by young men.
His visions come before their lively eyes.
Their healthy sensual minds,
their shapely taut bodies
stir to his perception of the beautiful.

This is, in my view, Cavafy at his most unconvincing. An old man shoring up a few memories of quick jousts against the ruins of old age, indeed of oblivion, is more pathetic than persuasive. In “Their Beginning,” a poem recounting the aftermath of an illicit tryst, the two men part, each going off in his own direction, and Cavafy concludes: “But what profit for the life of the artist:/ tomorrow, the day after, or years later, he’ll give voice/ to the strong lines that had their beginning here.” After quoting from this poem, W. H. Auden, a strong admirer of Cavafy, laconically remarks: “But what, one cannot help wondering, will be the future of the artist’s companion.”

This seems not ever to have been a question for Cavafy, to whom the world was not organized into moral compartments. Standard morals, regular virtues, were to him not central; sin, original or unoriginal, was of no interest. In the world of his poems, politics plays as no more than the comedy of state, one man, group, or state squabbling with another man, group, or state for the power to control others. Politics allowed men to behave cruelly to one another but it did not free even those in control from the even crueller twists of fate.

Cavafy tends to admire those who accept fate like King Dimitrios, in the poem by that name, who, when the Macedonians deserted him, slipped off his golden robes, slipped into simple clothes, and “just like an actor who,/ the play over,/ changes his costume and goes away.” In “The God Abandons Antony,” the poet invokes Antony to read the writing on the wall, and “Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say/ it was a dream, your ears deceived you:/ don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.”

In so many Cavafy poems, disaster lies round the corner, catastrophe waits in the wings. Although action is usually hopeless, inaction is itself a defect. Defeat in life is all but inevitable, and success, when it arrives, cannot for long be sustained. We are, in short, in the hands of the gods, the fates— call them what you will, they are full of dark surprises. The biggest mistake is to think one is in control of one’s life for very long. “Fate is a traitor,” says the narrator of the poem “Kimon, Son of Learchos,” and perepateia, or reversal of fortune, is, in Cavafy’s world, no more than business as usual. Nothing for it but to be honest about one’s emotion, accept one’s limitations, and live as best one can without illusions.

This sounds very dark, but, somehow, as it comes through Cavafy’s poems, it is not. Marguerite Yourcenar has called Cavafy’s “a perspective without illusions, but not desolate even so.” He never lets one forget that only fools think the world is arranged for their convenience. His poems fortify one in one’s determination never to underestimate life’s manifold traps and treacheries; to be grateful for the simple absence of tyranny and terror; to count oneself fortunate to exist in the delight of the moment.

Cavafy provokes one to think about what truly matters in a life, and to brood on what remains when it is over. His poems cause one to consider which is more regrettable in one’s life: the things done, or those left undone? Cavafy provides no answers to these questions. His achievement was to create out of historical particulars universal types who never let one forget the essential mystery of human nature. Cavafy admired those who could face this mystery without flinching, and his own poems lead one to think one has a chance to grasp that life truly is a mystery without necessarily making it any easier to face it on one’s own. It was Henry James who said that “it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance . . . and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.” Constantine Cavafy might have said the same—in fact, his poetry says exactly that.

Notes

  1. Cavafy: A Critical Biography, by Robert Liddell; Duckworth (London), 1974. Go back to the text.
  2. C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems, revised edition (1992). Translated from the Greek by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; edited by George Savidis. Princeton University Press, 284 pages, $39.50; $12.95 paper. Go back to the text. 

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 5, on page 15
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
https://newcriterion.com/issues/1994/1/cp-cavafy-a-poet-in-history

Popular Right Now