Famous poets from Auden to Heaney have written about Cavafy, introduced his translations, and acknowledged his influence on their own work. The texts of Cavafy’s unfinished poems, now translated by Mendelsohn for the first time, were pieced together from fragmentary successive drafts by the Italian scholar Renata Lavagnini, with the minute care–and the same technique–normally lavished only on the papyrus scraps of a major classical author, and their retrieval was hailed as a major literary discovery. If the Greeks, as is sometimes alleged, invented irony, this has to be an almost unrivalled example of it. What, we may well ask ourselves, has been the secret of this marginal Hellenist’s astonishing and unprecedented success in the Anglo-American literary world?
Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy was born, the youngest of seven brothers, in Alexandria, on April 29, 1863. His ancestry, in which he took great pride, included several distinguished Phanariots, that is, high Greek officials in the service of the Ottoman government and the Patriarchate at Constantinople. Many Phanariots boasted of their illustrious Byzantine ancestry, and several of Cavafy’s poems show a strong emotional sympathy with the aristocratic emperor (and subsequent monastic theologian) John VI Kantakouzenos, who reigned in the fourteenth century.
Cavafy’s center was never in the Greek homeland. When, in his poem “In Church,” his thoughts turn “to the great glories of our race,” he is not thinking of Periclean Athens. He is stirred, rather, by what Mendelsohn translates as “our illustrious Byzantinism.” It is the Byzantine patrician in Cavafy that we hear when he remarks, cuttingly, as quoted by E.M. Forster: “Aristocracy in modern Greece? To be an aristocrat there is to have made a corner in coffee in Piraeus in 1849.”