Cavafy’s poem “Interruption,” composed in 1900 and copied here in his own hand on a leaf of the Sengopoulos Notebook
Cavafy Archive, S.N.H.

Cavafy’s World: The Poet in the Library, displayed at the Special Collections Library of the Harlan Hatcher Graduate Library, contains manuscripts and published works by the poet, who has been praised for his lucid, learned writing. Behind the poet stood a voracious reader, careful archivist, and reluctant publisher. Cavafy’s reading covered the entire span of Greek literature, the longest unbroken written tradition that exists in a single evolving language. In verses that embrace the expressive range of Greek, Cavafy placed the common beside the refined, the contemporary beside the ancient, the demotic beside an archaizing Greek idiom. He acknowledged a debt to authors ranging from Homer to his contemporaries and covering literature from the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. Cavafy also read sources in English, from Shakespeare to Ruskin and Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Cavafy studied with a critical eye. Besides English and Greek, he knew French and Italian and spoke Arabic.

Cavafy’s archives offer a record of his publishing tactics. He never collected his poetry into a permanent volume, although he occasionally contributed to periodicals. Between 1891 and 1904 he published six out of approximately 180 poems. In 1904 he collected 14 poems in a pamphlet, which he printed at his own expense in a small run. Six years later he issued 21 out of some 220 poems. In 1911, however, Cavafy devised a new, original practice of distributing poems: he grouped offprints in folders and then sent them to a select, changing list of readers. As his poetic oeuvre grew, Cavafy would withdraw some poems and have the remainder hand-sewn into booklets that would accompany folders with new offprints. At the time of his death in 1933 his work consisted of a sewn booklet with 40 poems dated from 1905 to 1915, another with 28 poems from 1916 to 1918, and a folder of 69 more poems dating after 1918.

On one occasion Cavafy purchased a bound blank book and meticulously copied a selection of his favorite poems. He offered this book as a gift to Aleko Sengopoulos, whom he named as his heir in 1924. Known as the “Sengopoulos Notebook,” this rare and beautiful manuscript is exhibited in the Hatcher Library amid other Cavafy manuscripts, folders, and printed poems.

Cavafy left no instructions for the publication of a collected edition. In 1935 his heir published the first edition of 153 poems. This has become known as the “canon,” though it represents just part of Cavafy’s corpus. Alongside these are the unpublished or “hidden” poems first published in 1968, the rejected poems and unfinished poems, together with several prose poems, translations, poems in English, journals, reading notes, and letters.

The materials on display are from the Cavafy Library and Archive, a keystone of the Center for Neo-Hellenic Studies (S.N.H.) in Athens. The Cavafy materials were purchased by the late Professor George Savidis in 1969 from Kyvele Sengopoulou, who inherited it from Aleko Sengopoulos, Cavafy’s heir. We are grateful to Manolis Savidis for loaning these materials.

Translation of one of Cavafy’s poems, included in the Sengopoulos Notebook
The Enemies

Three sophists came to greet the Consul.
The Consul seated them close to him.
He spoke to them politely. And later, jokingly,
he told them to take care. “Fame makes
enviers of men. Rivals write. You have enemies.”
One of the three answered with serious words.

“Our contemporary enemies will never harm us.
Our enemies will come later, the new sophists.
When we, extremely old, will lie piteously in bed;
and when some of us will have entered Hades. Today’s
words and our work will seem odd (and comical
perhaps) because the enemies will change
sophistries, styles, and rankings. In the same way as I,
and as those others, who refashioned the past so much.
Whatever we represented as lovely and correct
the enemies will prove to be inane and extravagant,
saying the same things again differently (without great effort).
As we too said the old words in another manner.

Trans. Theoharis C. Theoharis (Before Time Could Change
Them: The Complete Poems of Constantine P. Cavafy, 2001)