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ELPENOR - Home of the Greek Word

Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Daniel Mendelsohn
Cavafy : The Life of a Poet


The Original Greek New Testament

Excerpts, edited by Elpenor. Full text at NYR 55-18.


"In the poems of his youth and even certain poems of his middle age he quite often appears ordinary and lacking in any great distinction," Seferis remarked during his 1946 lecture—another rather severe judgment whose underlying shrewdness cannot be denied, when we go back to so many of the poems Cavafy wrote in his thirties and even early forties, with their obvious debts to other writers and thinkers, their evasions and obfuscations. And then, as Seferis went on to say, "something very extraordinary happens." As will be evident by now, little about the external events of Cavafy's life helps to account for that remarkable evolutionary leap. Only by tracing the course of his interior life, his intellectual development, from the 1890s to the 1910s is it possible to discern the path by which (to paraphrase that other great Greek poet again) Cavafy went from being a mediocre writer to a great one.

As a young littérateur in the 1880s and 1890s, when he was in his twenties and thirties, he was steadily writing quantities of verse as well as contributing articles, reviews, and essays, most in Greek but some in English (a language in which he was perfectly at home as the result of those adolescent years spent in England), on a broad range of idiosyncratic subjects to Alexandrian and Athenian journals ("Coral from a Mythological Viewpoint," "Give Back the Elgin Marbles," Keats's Lamia ). Such writings, as well as the historical poems that belong to this early period, already betray not only a deep familiarity with a broad range of modern historians, which he read in Greek, English, and French, but also the meticulous attentiveness to primary sources in the original languages—classical and later Greek and Roman historians, the early Church Fathers, Byzantine chroniclers—that we tend to associate with scholars rather than poets.


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