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Three Millennia of Greek Literature
 

Peter Green
Cavafy : The supreme modern poet of nostalgia

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Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy was born, the youngest of seven brothers, in Alexandria, on April 29, 1863. His ancestry, in which he took great pride, included several distinguished Phanariots, that is, high Greek officials in the service of the Ottoman government and the Patriarchate at Constantinople. Many Phanariots boasted of their illustrious Byzantine ancestry, and several of Cavafy's poems show a strong emotional sympathy with the aristocratic emperor (and subsequent monastic theologian) John VI Kantakouzenos, who reigned in the fourteenth century.

Cavafy's center was never in the Greek homeland. When, in his poem "In Church," his thoughts turn "to the great glories of our race," he is not thinking of Periclean Athens. He is stirred, rather, by what Mendelsohn translates as "our illustrious Byzantinism." It is the Byzantine patrician in Cavafy that we hear when he remarks, cuttingly, as quoted by E.M. Forster: "Aristocracy in modern Greece? To be an aristocrat there is to have made a corner in coffee in Piraeus in 1849."

Cavafy's father preferred to make his corner in exporting Egyptian cotton, successfully enough to run a large luxurious home in the most fashionable quarter of Alexandria, and to move, with his wife Charicleia, in the city's smartest social circles. Then, in 1870, unexpectedly and prematurely, he died. His eldest sons, inexperienced in the business, made unwise investments, and a hemorrhage of capital left them unable to maintain their Alexandrian lifestyle. In 1872 the family moved to England, where Cavafy & Co. had offices. But by 1876 the situation was so bad that the company had to be liquidated, and a year later Charicleia brought her brood back to Alexandria, now as impoverished apartment-dwellers in the city where once they enjoyed both wealth and cosmopolitan social status. Young Constantine was nine years old at the time: the transience of happiness, nostalgia for lost greatness, stoic resignation-- these were strong emotions seared into his mind at a highly impressionable age. To Forster, years later, he remarked, "Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital." That one came from the heart.

 

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Cf. Cavafy's poems - Bilingual versions, Mendelsohn, Cavafy - Life of a Poet, Cavafy resources

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