Cavafy’s Life 1890s–1911

Harikleia Photiadi Cavafy, about age 17. Photograph taken in London ca. 1852.
Cavafy Archive, S.N.H.

1890s–1910: Cavafy leaves the good neighborhood of Ramleh by night to pursue homosexual encounters in Alexandria’s “bad quarter.” He records these experiences obliquely in poetry and more directly in tantalizing written confessions about his personal life, which he keeps hidden. Later in life an aging Cavafy will rework experiences from his youth in his poetry.

1897: Cavafy and his brother John tour Paris and London.

1899: Death of Cavafy’s mother. Cavafy records his “terrible guilt” that he did not always treat her well, though she predicted, “The only one who will truly mourn me when I die is Costis.” During this period, Cavafy keeps lists of family heirlooms as well as household chores.

1900: Untimely death of Cavafy’s brother George. Cavafy travels to Cairo for sightseeing.

1901: Cavafy’s first trip to Athens yields unadorned travel notes, “a diary of occurrences, not of impressions and ideas,” and a few literary connections.

1902: Untimely death of Cavafy’s brother Aristides. Cavafy keeps private notes about his personal life. In one, dated 9 November, he is careful to reveal no more than he can simultaneously hide: “This evening it went through my mind to write about my love. And yet I won’t do it. Such power has prejudice. I have been freed from it, but I think of those enslaved under whose eyes this paper may pass. And I stop. What pusillanimity! Let me note one letter—T—as symbol of this moment.”

1903: Cavafy returns to Athens and meets popular Greek writer G. Xenopoulos, who publishes an article introducing Cavafy to an Athenian readership. Cavafy writes “Ars Poetica.”

1907: Cavafy moves to 10 Lepsius Street with his brother Paul.

1908: Paul moves to Paris, leaving Cavafy alone in the Lepsius Street apartment. Cavafy completes “Hidden Things,” a poem that remains unpublished until 1968. In a note written in Greek in Cavafy's hand and dated 29 July 1908 (Cavafy Archive, S.N.H.), Cavafy confesses that he is “moved by the beauty of the people, of poor young people: servants, workers, smalltime business clerks, shop assistants.” Hard work “makes their bodies lean and symmetrical” and gives their faces color, in contrast to the “bloated” bodies or “wrinkled faces” of “rich young men.”

Cavafy’s apartment (center) on Lepsius Street. Cavafy and his brother Paul rented the apartment with the balcony. Photograph, undated. E.L.I.A.

1911: Cavafy completes two beautiful poems, “Ithaka” and “The God Abandons Antony,” as well as an outspoken poem, “Dangerous Thoughts.” He calls the period before 1911 “pre-Cavafy.” From the early period, he destroys many poems he considers failures, keeps a few poems he considers successful, and salvages a third group of mainly historical poems, which he keeps reworking. After 1911 Cavafy increases his poetic output.