Gregory Jusdanis in Berfrois:
What made C. P. Cavafy write some of the most original poetry in the world? I went to Athens in January 2015 to find out.
Born in Alexandria on April 29, 1863, Cavafy died there, on the same day seventy years later. He came from a prosperous family with aristocratic roots but, when he was a child, his family lost this fortune and, as an adult, he found work as a civil servant.
The Cavafy we know from his mature poetry—he published only 154 poems of the hundreds he had written—seems emotionally distant, dedicated only to his craft. Though he enjoyed company, received visitors regularly, and was admired as a conversationalist, he lived a loveless life.
The letters from his adulthood, often terse, lack affection, personal indiscretion, or self-revelation. Contemporaries paint a picture of a sociable person, eager to talk about his poetry or ancient history but one devoid of intimate friends. No one described him as a loving or empathetic person.
I was greatly surprised, therefore, to discover material that presents a different Cavafy, at least in his youth.
For instance, in a letter to his friend, Pericles Anastasiadis, housed in the ELIA Archive, Cavafy appears as a compassionate friend. Written in English sometime in the 1890’s and sent to Paris where Peri was traveling, the letter exists only in draft form with sentences crossed out, others added, and many words composed in short hand. Reading it is like reading his poem “In the Month of Athyr,” in which a modern reader tries to interpret an ancient inscription.
From my attempts to decipher the text, Cavafy appears to console his friend. He speaks of sorrow, referring perhaps to a death of a family member, friend, or a lover. I’m not sure.