The Professorship in Modern Greek at the University of Michigan is named after Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933), the best-known modern poet writing in Greek. The choice of name is inspired by the poet's eminence, his diachronic interest in Hellenism, and his diasporic fate. It also recognizes that members of the Greek diaspora in the United States established the Chair through their tireless efforts and generous contributions.
Cavafy, too, was a Greek of the diaspora. Born to parents from Constantinople, raised for a time in Liverpool and London, Cavafy wrote his finest poetry in Alexandria, his birthplace and the city identified closely with his name.
Cavafy possessed a singular voice that resonates even in translation. British contemporary E. M. Forster appreciated Cavafy's original approach. He described Cavafy as standing "at a slight angle to the universe." He introduced the poet's work to T. S. Eliot, T. E. Lawrence, Arnold Toynbee, and others who in turn inspired new readers to discover Cavafy's work. Yet Europe and America did not come to know Cavafy until the 1950s. Once his work was translated, Cavafy posthumously emerged as an enormously influential poet.
You can learn more about Cavafy by visiting online the exhibit, "Cavafy's World" which opened at the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and Hatcher Graduate Library Special Collections in February 2002.
Cavafy's work has many different threads. One can be found in Cavafy's posthumously published poem, "The Enemies." There Cavafy speaks of poets "who so much transformed past things." In a remarkable commentary on the shaping of taste, fashion, ideas, and literary canons, Cavafy seems to have foreseen the power of future readers to re-evaluate his work, even as Cavafy reshaped what he inherited from his precursors. Cavafy was a modern Plutarch, who read not just lives but historical moments past, present, and future in parallel. He understood that hindsight sees clearly history's unforeseen ironic turns, but the same eyes are blind to history's repetitions. He set his art to dramatizing the emotions, desires, and reflections, however grand or mundane, that propel people to act unwisely, then to console themselves by reliving the past as they would have liked to play it out.
Cavafy's sources of inspiration were human dramas that had "aged." It was the effects of time's passage as much as the drama of actual events that interested him. "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," Cavafy wrote. He found evidence of "aged" and "falsified" human drama all around him in Alexandria, Egypt, a city that had risen to power and declined more than once in its long history.
Cavafy's sources of "aged" impressions also contain memories from his lifetime. Cavafy's was an immensely rich family of the Greek diaspora with allegedly aristocratic, Byzantine roots. His family's precipitous fall from to near poverty, vacillations in the financial fortunes of the once thriving modern Greek colony in Alexandria, and breaks in relations between Muslim and Christian, colonial and colonized populations in Egypt are the contemporary events that shaped the modern end of Cavafy's historical sense. Cavafy's archives-his passport, photographs, family genealogy, letters and, most dramatically, Cavafy's death mask-bring this life into view. One can follow the dramatic change from the Cavafy family's presence in cosmopolitan upper class London and Constantinopolitan societies to his life as an impoverished civil servant in the British colony of Alexandria.
But Cavafy channeled energy from his family's "fall" into reflections on time's passing. Cavafy's family story does not enter his poetry directly. Instead it appears in his thinking about transition, change, decline, and passage from one world order to another. A book Cavafy read diligently is Edward Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which Cavafy filled with fervent notes of violent disagreement and occasional assent. Here Cavafy reveals the development of his ideas about decline. In published and unpublished manuscripts, too, one finds his highly sophisticated dramatization of historical and imaginary personae facing sudden and disastrous change in various states of preparedness. Cavafy's small world of personal disappointments expands to incorporate a long view of historical upheavals in the Eastern Mediterranean.
The "aged" impressions that entered Cavafy's work most directly and famously come from his nightly escapades. Most Cavafy readers today know that he secretly fled the decency, order, and claustrophobia of life in Alexandria's "good quarter" to enjoy the mess, squalor, and excitement of homosexual encounters in the shops and bars of Alexandria's "bad quarter." Cavafy was careful to keep these and other secrets half-hidden. He did not publish some of his best poems-especially his explicitly homosexual poems-in his lifetime. Partly this was to hide his homosexuality, the "Hidden Things" he referred to in one of many poems he left unpublished and filed with this note: "to be kept but not published." At every turn one sees Cavafy plotting his future by alternately revealing and hiding himself. One suggestive note reads: "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 the moment. 9.ll.1902."
In large part, Cavafy's strategy of saving instead of publishing guaranteed surprise, a necessary element of sustained fame. Cavafy understood that a poet's death would transform his name. He wanted to ensure an affirming transformation. In his lifetime he circulated his work only partially, never as a whole. He sent readers hand-sewn printed copies of his poems to friends, acquaintances, and preferred readers. He handpicked his readers-and the list changed with each new mailing, depending on his previous reception. Cavafy's archives reveal quite deliberately and systematically this strategy. To date, only Greek-speaking audiences have had access to this astounding resource.
Cavafy left his complete works to posterity to discover, bit by bit. The story of his reception is another important part of his legacy. It is found in letters, in the sequence of publications and translations of his work but also in paintings that visualize memories of fleeting encounters recorded in Cavafy's poetry. The most famous of these is a set of David Hockney drawings, but there are many other excellent portraits of the poet by lesser known artists.
People's responses to his poetry keep his work alive.
"...What these Ithakas mean." Readings in Cavafy, in Greek and English, presents Cavafy's life and poetry as well as responses by current readers to 45 of his poems. Edited by Artemis Leontis, Lauren Talalay, and Keith Taylor, the volume is lavishly illustrated with documentary photographs relating to Cavafy's life and images of objects from the Kelsey Museum collection that resonate with his poems.