A Greek Gentleman in a Straw Hat – the poet C.P. Cavafy

E.M. Forster memorably described the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933  ) as

“A Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless  at a slight angle to the universe.”

This poet came to personify Alexandria, the city in which he was born and lived most of his life. Cavafy’s father died when he was aged only 6 after which his mother moved the family to England.  They returned to Alexandria in 1877 when Cavafy was aged 14.

In 1892 Cavafy took a post in the Gormenghast-ian sounding Irrigation Service of the Ministry of Public Works, a job in which he was to remain for thirty years! He did not live an auspicious lifestyle but occupied a humble apartment at No. 10 Rue Lepsius.   Cavafy self-published pamphlets of his own poems during his lifetime – much of his work was not published formally in collections until after his death.  Nevertheless he was part of a literary circle.

Constantine Cavafy in 1929

Photo from the Onassis Cavafy Archive

Daniel Mendelsohn writes in his introduction to his translation of the C.P. Cavafy: Complete Poems (Harper Press, 2012):

“Most evenings as he grew older, found him at home, either alone with a book or surrounded by a crowd of people that was in every way Alexandrian; a mixture of Greeks, Jews, Syrians, visiting Belgians established writers… a critic or two… . To these friends and admirers the poet liked to hold forth… .’

Exposure to a western readership came when Cavafy was translated by E.M. Forster and featured in Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet which I am reading now.    Durrell lived in Alexandria between 1942 and 1945, less than 10 years after the death of the poet whose works would have been very much within living memory.

Durrell’s Quartet features complex interleaved plots and descriptions of the same happenings and characters,  but taken from differing viewpoints.  There is a good summary of this relatively impenetrable work here.   I’ve got as far as Balthazar, the second book.  Have you read this?  I’d love to know what people think.   Jan Morris says in her introduction to my edition of the Quartet that ” it is neither specific nor precise about almost anything”.  She also writes:  “the high ambition of its schema sometimes makes its narratives and characters inexplicably confusing.”

Mmm!  I would agree with that.   I found the first volume overwrought, over-written and over everything,  but there is no doubt that Durrell’s descriptions are wonderful.  He was writing in a very different era and tastes and fashions change.

Interesting thought though that ‘the poet’ who is referred to in these pages (i.e. Cavafy) features as a character with a few scenes and a few lines.  But it seemed to me rather that Durrell’s dense and sylistic writing is itself akin to poetry – Cavafy’s poetry?

Take for example these few sentences from the first book of the Quartet, Justine:

“These fugitive memories explain nothing, illuminate nothing: yet they return again and again when I think of my friends as if the very circumstances of our habits had become impregnated with what we then felt, the parts we then acted.  The slither of tyres across the waves of the desert under a sky blue and frost-bound winter; or in summer a fearful lunar bombardment which turned the sea to phosphorous…”


Compare with this extract from Cavafy’s poem “Far Off”:


I’d like to talk about memory . . .

But by now it’s long died out . . . as if there’s nothing left :

because it lies far off, in the years of my first youth.


Skin, as if it had been made of jasmine . . .

That August – was it August? – evening . . .

I can just recall the eyes: they were, I daresay, blue . . .

Ah yes, blue: a deep blue, sapphirine.


Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was a fan of Cavafy’s work.  His poem ‘Ithaca’ was read at her funeral.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon-don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon-you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind-
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.


It is not the destination which counts but the journey.

You can find much more information about the poet C.P. Cavafy plus a digital collection of his archive here at cavafy.onassis.org.