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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Daniel Mendelsohn
Cavafy : The Life of a Poet


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The earliest poems we have date to the poet's late teens, when he was sojourning with his mother's family in and around Constantinople. These include dutiful if unpersuasive exercises on Romantic themes (ecstatic encomia to the lovely eyes of fetching lasses; a Grecified adaptation of Lady Anne Barnard's ballad on love and loss in the Highlands), some flights of Turkish Orientalism, complete with smoldering beauties locked up in harems.

As time passed, he was drawn more and more to recent and contemporary currents in Continental literature. The Parnassian movement of the 1860s and 1870s, in particular, with its eager response to Théophile Gautier's call for an "Art for Art's sake," its insistence on elevating polished form over earnest subjective, social, and political content, and particularly its invitation to a return to the milieus and models of the antique Mediterranean past, had special appeal. That so many of Cavafy's poems from this period are sonnets or variations on the sonnet form is a testament to the influence of the Parnassians, who prized the form for its rigorous technical requirements.


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Cf. Cavafy's poems - Bilingual versions, Green, Cavafy - The supreme modern poet of nostalgia, Cavafy in print, Cavafy resources

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