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Cavafy’s World

The Kelsey portion of “Cavafy’s World,” which opens February 21, is curated by Kelsey Acting Director Lauren Talalay and Adjunct Associate Professor of Modern Greek Artemis Leontis.

Universally regarded as a great twentieth-century poet, Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was a member of the Greek diaspora who was marginally comfortable in several worlds. He lived on three continents, moving among Alexandria, Liverpool, London, and Constantinople, speaking Arabic, English, French, Greek, and Italian. Though most of his poetry is written in Greek, his singular voice resonates well in translation, especially in English, the language of his schooling. A Greek in Egypt, a modern among towering ancients, a homosexual in a straight world, a secular Orthodox Christian among Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and Muslims—Cavafy seemed to stand “at a slight angle to the universe,” as E. M. Forster suggested. In his lifetime, his work was celebrated by a small coterie of admirers, including Forster, who introduced his work to T. S. Eliot, T. E. Lawrence, and Arnold Toynbee. After his death, when many of his poems were translated, Cavafy became a towering figure of modern letters.

While readers agree on Cavafy’s excellence, they have trouble pinning him down. They rightly connect him with Alexandria, the setting of so many poems. He is admired for unveiling homoerotic desire. Mention is also made of the masks he put on to explore human drama. But where exactly does Cavafy belong? In a theater, portrait gallery, gay bar, empty apartment, or in the lost Library of Alexandria?

Cavafy’s poem “For the Shop” is complemented by a gold necklace and earrings of the Graeco-Roman period (KM 1985.9.1a, b, and c).

The Kelsey Exhibition

We have chosen to place Cavafy in an archaeological museum amid fragments from ancient civilizations, for he was consumed by curiosity about past things. Enormously erudite despite minimal formal education, he studied the legacies of the Hellenistic presence in the eastern Mediterranean. What interested him most were the traces of human dramas that had aged. He considered time’s passage to be a requirement for creative work: “To me, the immediate impression is never a starting point for work. The impression has got to age, has got to falsify itself with time, without my having to falsify it.” He found evidence of “aged” and “falsified” human drama all around him in Alexandria, a city that had risen to power and declined more than once in its long history.

What better place to encounter Cavafy than next to the objects that would have stirred his fertile imagination? What better way to perceive the strong connections between Cavafy’s poetry and antiquity than to view his manuscripts alongside select items from the Kelsey’s remarkable collection? This is the central idea of “Ancient Passions,” the portion of “Cavafy’s World” to be exhibited at the Kelsey Museum.

Cavafy’s poem “Tomb of Evrion” will be juxtaposed to this portrait of a seated youth made of wood, plaster, and paint from Roman Egypt, ca. 200 AD (KM 88617).

Here visitors will find a display of ancient coins, including one of Cleopatra, to illustrate Cavafy’s historical poems. Remnants of imperial power will stand next to Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Papyri, instruments, pottery, and artful pieces of jewelry will accompany his poems about poetry, art, and craft. Ancient portraits, funerary inscriptions, and death masks will supplement his poems memorializing the dead. A sarcophagus depicting the retinue of Dionysus will suggest the scene of “The God Abandons Antony,” and one showing the Trojan king Priam visiting Agamemnon will illustrate “Priam’s Night Journey.”

Egyptian antiquities, including semi-precious beads, a beautiful necklace, and a collection of ancient perfume bottles, will enhance the reading of Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka.” There are also Egyptian textiles, oil lamps, votive breads, recipes of magic, and amulets syncretizing pagan and Christian practices, each presenting the world of crossed thresholds that Cavafy’s poetry inhabits.

Alongside ancient artifacts will be materials from Cavafy’s personal files, on loan to the Kelsey from two private archives in Greece. The Center for Neo-Hellenic Studies and the Hellenic Literary and Historical Archives have generously agreed to send to the United States for the first time a selection of Cavafy’s notes, manuscripts, passport, photographs, family genealogy, letters, and personal objects to help bring his life dramatically into view.

Cavafy’s Biography

Cavafy’s biography is a fascinating story of a family’s decline and a poet’s ascent. The poet was born into an immensely rich Greek family. His father ran a successful import-export business with headquarters in London and a branch in Alexandria. A French tutor, British governess, Italian chauffeur, Egyptian butler, and Greek servants graced the family’s house in Alexandria. Then suddenly his father died when Cavafy was seven, and his mother was forced to rent the grand family home. There followed a series of moves, first to England in 1872, where Cavafy received British schooling. In 1878 the family returned to Alexandria. The Araby nationalist uprising and the British bombing of Alexandria in reprisal destroyed the family home and forced them to move to Constantinople in 1882. During this unhappy time Cavafy completed some of his first poems.

Returning to Alexandria in October 1885, Cavafy moved from job to job until he was offered the salaried position of clerk in the Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Works in 1892. There he remained for thirty years until he retired in 1922, declaring joyfully: “At last I am freed of that despised thing.”

Cavafy secretly pursued ephemeral homosexual encounters, as evident more in his unpublished confessions than in his published poetry. He lived an intensely divided life. At night, he fled the decency, order, and claustrophobia of Alexandria’s “good quarter” to enjoy the squalor and excitement of homosexual encounters in the shops and bars of its “bad quarter.” Images of those encounters are found in poems published after 1911, when an aging Cavafy began to rework experiences from his youth. His later poems often underscore the sensual, almost intoxicating power of those memories. The love affairs are, however, usually tainted with tragedy, depicted as fleeting, and eclipsed by a sense that they are condemned by society. They are fading, transient pleasures, against whose passing the written word acts as the only antidote.

By the time Cavafy reached midlife, he was carrying 30 years’ misfortune on his shoulders. One by one, his brothers followed a path to self-destruction. There were several deaths: Cavafy’s best friend Mikes Rallis in 1889, his mother in 1899, and four brothers between 1891 and 1905. Thus Cavafy spent the first half of his life in a free fall from great wealth to personal loss on all fronts. He witnessed his family’s free spending, short-term investing, business errors, gambling, and a heavy dose of bad luck, all exacerbated by political unrest and the waning fortunes of mercantile communities around the Mediterranean and Black seas. Whatever the material effect of these misfortunes, it is clear that Cavafy became a prudent merchant of words. As a writer, he proved to be a patient, ambitious, risk-taking planner of a lasting fortune.

The Poetry

Once settled into his job at the Irrigation Office, Cavafy began publishing poems. Lucid verse, studied detail, and a carefully chosen symbol to carry a pessimistic central idea characterize his early style. There were breakthroughs in 1891 and 1892, when Cavafy completed “Builders” and several prose works, including an editorial arguing for the return to Greece of the “Elgin” Marbles. Some of what would become his best-known poems followed: “Candles,” “The City,” “An Old Man,” “Chandelier,” “Walls,” “Windows,” “Waiting for the Barbarians,” “Che fece . . . il gran Rifiuto,” “The First Step.” His style economically dramatizes turning points in unsettled lives.

Cavafy drew a line dividing his work before and after 1911, the year he published two beautiful poems, “Ithaka” and “The God Abandons Antony,” as well as his first outspoken poem, “What Things Are Dangerous.” He called the period before 1911 “pre-Cavafy,” thus suggesting that he only became himself after 1911. Whether such a clear divide exists in Cavafy’s work is subject to disagreement. What is certain is that in 1911 he increased his poetic output. He also adopted a new, original practice of distributing poems in offprints grouped together in folders and sent to a select, changing list of readers.

What contributed to Cavafy’s becoming “Cavafy”? The poet’s adventures in reading certainly played their part. Cavafy was both a voracious reader of historical writing and a self-trained scholar, who kept up to date on contemporary discoveries in archaeology, history, numismatics, and papyrology. From Hellenistic sources, in particular, he borrowed not only stories and themes but also forgotten literary forms such as epigrammatic and dramatic verse. On the personal side, Cavafy gradually freed himself from social taboos and began to write about “hidden things.” But his work also focused on other “dangerous things”: threshold encounters where different worlds collide. He seized on circumstances that brought into dramatic contact pagan and Christian, poet and saint, Greek and non-Greek, rich and poor, young and old men, powerful and deflated leaders, delusions of immortality and the reality of old age and death. He filled his poetry with people about to meet an unexpected fate. He dramatized the emotions, desires, and reflections, however grand or mundane, that propelled them to act unwisely, then to console themselves by reliving the past as they would have liked to play it out. A modern Plutarch, Cavafy presented contemporary aspirations and disappointments against the backdrop of history and, conversely, brought figures from the past vividly to life for contemporary readers.

The Poet’s Later Years

In 1907 Cavafy made one last move-to the famous house on Lepsius Street in Alexandria. There he would spend his remaining 26 years in increasing outward shabbiness (he cut his personal expenses dramatically after 1912) but deeply committed to achieving lasting fame. He found comfort in the knowledge that he had everything a person might need at arm’s length. A brothel, a hospital, and a church for burial all stood down the street. His daily life became largely uneventful. From this point on, his life story is embellished by much literary activity but little personal drama, except for the death of his two surviving brothers and an unpleasant journalistic attack on his character as “another Oscar Wilde.”

Cavafy regularly received visitors by candlelight in the well-worn furnishings of his living room. He kept them entertained with clever conversation about people long dead, serving them wine and spirits whose quality depended on the esteem in which he held them. Among others, Cavafy received British author E. M. Forster, who introduced him to an English readership in 1919 and brought several influential people to his doorstep. Cavafy also received Aleko Sengopoulos, his future heir, as well as Greek authors Nikos Kazantzakis and Penelope Delta, Greek business magnate Antony Benakis, Director of the British Museum Sir John Forsdyke, French translator of Callimachus Robin Furness, and Italian Futurist Filippo Marinetti. When the latter called him a “futurist,” Cavafy begged to differ, but Marinetti insisted: “Whoever is in advance of his time in art or in life is a futurist.”

In 1932 Cavafy was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. Following a tracheotomy in Athens he lost his ability to speak, so he communicated practical matters through handwritten notes. Antony Benakis invited him to stay in Athens, but Cavafy demurred, “Mohammed Aly Square is my aunt. Rue Cherif Pacha is my first cousin, and the Rue de Ramleh my second. How can I leave them?” Back in Alexandria, he completed one last poem, “On the Outskirts of Antioch.” He died on his birthday, April 29, 1933, in the Greek Hospital in Alexandria.

Cavafy’s World

The story of Cavafy’s reception is another important piece of “Cavafy’s World.” It was not until 1935, two years after his death, that 154 of his poems were first collected. Published by Rika Sengopoulou, these constitute the Cavafy “canon” but are just part of his corpus. There are also 78 “Unpublished Poems,” first published in 1968, then republished with eight additional poems in 1993 under the new title “Hidden Poems.” The “Rejected Poems” and “Unfinished Poems,” together with several prose poems, translations, poems in English, journals, and letters, round out Cavafy’s extant works. A group of his publications and translations of his work will be displayed at the Hatcher Graduate Library in a portion of “Cavafy’s World” entitled “The Poet in the Library.” Another dimension of Cavafy’s reception is found in art works that illustrate the fleeting encounters recorded in his poetry. The most famous of these is a set of David Hockney prints, to be displayed at the University Museum of Art in an exhibition entitled “Hidden Things.”

“Cavafy’s World” will attempt to give a visual order to Cavafy’s poetry. Cavafy was not a visual poet in a traditional way; he had no patience for landscape. Yet his genius was precisely one of conjuring up events from memory, artifacts, and books. That genius has not been lost on visual artists such as Hockney. We are challenged to imitate, and so to bring into view, the processes that produced Cavafy’s rich poetic world.

—Artemis Leontis