Who is Konstantinos Kavafis?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Konstantinos Kavafis (also transliterated as Constantinos or Constantine Cavafy) was the most preeminent Greek poet of the twentieth century. His work has been widely translated, although most of his poetry was not formally published until after his death in 1933. Konstantinos Kavafis explored many uncomfortable themes in his work, which was considered extremely radical for its era. The poetry of Konstantinos Kavafis, even in translation, is haunting, lyrical, and compelling.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

Konstantinos Kavafis was born in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents in 1863. Although Kavafis was Greek by nationality, he spent very little of his life in Greece, living primarily in Egypt, although he spent time in Turkey and England as well. His father ran an importing and exporting business and lived and worked in England long enough to achieve dual citizenship. The family lived in Alexandria until 1870, when Konstantinos Kavfis' father died and his mother took the family to Liverpool.

After experiencing financial difficulties in England, the family returned to Egypt, where they lived for only five years before being forced to move again, this time to Constantinople, now called Istanbul, where Konstantinos Kavafis lived out his childhood. In 1885, Kavafis returned to Alexandria and stayed there for the remainder of his life, presumably exhausted from the frequent moves he made as a child.

In Alexandria, Konstantinos Kavafis worked first as a journalist, and later for the Ministry of Public Works. He spent his life as a public servant, publishing his poetry on the side in the form of broadsheets and chapbooks that were distributed among his friends and the literary community. His work received little attention during his lifetime, as it was very different from conventional Greek poetry and accessed a very limited audience. Only in the 1920s, with the rise of changes in the Greek literary community, did Konstantinos Kavafis begin to receive any sort of acclaim for his work.

Kavafis changed the face of Greek poetry, to the point that he is regarded as a major representative of the shift that occurred in Greek literature in the mid-20th century, and his work is widely taught in Greek schools. His poetry is highly refined and uses atypical rhyming schemes that do not often carry over in translation. Much of his poetry is historical, and it incorporates questions about religion, morality, homosexuality, and psychology. These themes were extremely daring for the era in which he wrote.

Kavafis drew from personal experience, history, and Greek mythology in writing his work, and he spent much of his life in seclusion, isolated from the Greek community. His very deliberate craftsmanship is used as a model by many modern poets, who strive to create the impact Kavafis achieved with his often very short and simple poems.

Konstantinos Kavafis wrote a number of types of poems, dividing them himself into three genres. There were historical poems, such as “Ithaca” and “The God Abandons Antony,” focusing on decadence and decline, especially in historical Alexandria. He also wrote sensual poems, such as “Waiting for the Barbarians,” dealing with sexuality, nostalgia, emotion, and remembrance. In addition, there are the philosophical poems, musing upon human nature, thorny issues, closure, and dignity. Examples of Kavafis' philosophical poems include “The Walls” and “Thermopylae.”

Konstantinos Kavafis made a huge contribution to 20th century Greek literature, and it is a great tragedy that he was never acclaimed for it during his lifetime. His work changed the face of Greek poetry, brought about a new experimental era, and challenged social views on a lot of major issues.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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