Constantine Cavafy is the pre-eminent poet of the Greek diaspora. His poetry seems unchanged by the time. His work, though small compared to that of other fellow artists, is huge in terms of importance and the development it launched in Hellenic poetic events. His poetry was an explosion that precipitated the old poetry, released his tongue and pushed the psyche of the new times – that is his times – introducing a new era in Greek poetry.
His poetry is over-abundant in lessons, elegiac and lyrical, going straight ahead and marking the milestones and bounds through history, a poetry that comes directly from the depths of his soul to conquer the truth and be conquered by life processes. His Logos is fulminant, dramatic, it expresses the impasses of his time struggling to debunk and/or abolish symbols. His poetry is a confession of life pumped by strong emotions and passions, expressed in the most dramatic and unusual way.
Constantine Cavafy’s poetry is a historical research, a deep personal feeling and an inner self-discovery. His poetic language has the rhythm, his walking verse is embedded into the spoken word, just as he thought by himself one should speak the Greek language. There is his own personal drama that wants to hide away and hide himself behind historical moments and events. His poetry is a product of profound and deep philosophical and historical search. Besides, this is why he became a poet quite late, when the time was ready to ripen his wisdom.
However, apart from all these there is the political Cavafy somehow silenced or counterfeited even today. According to the study by Stratis Tsirkas under the title ‘Ο πολιτικός Καβάφης’ the poet “selects the myths of his poems the Hellenistic and Greco-Roman era, not because supposedly in them he could speak more freely about his love, but because, under the guise of imperialism of Rome, there are proportions going with the imperialism of Great Britain in the Eastern Mediterranean, all those years, from the birth of the poet until his death.”
Cavafy had been shocked by an incident when in early June 1906, five British officers went to the small village of Ntensouai to hunt pigeons bred by some fellaheen. The British not only paid no attention to the complaining village official for the inconvenience of the fellaheen caused by previous similar actions but they burned a house with the threshing floor, and with their weapons injured a young fellah and her child. Fellaheen then attacked them with batons and beat them. In their retreat the English shot and wounded four other fellaheen before managed to escape, but went in retaliation. They arrested 52 fellaheen as participants in the riot, and sent them to an emergency court on June 24 in a parody of a trial. The court decision did not provide any appeal or pardon. The court conceded only 30 minutes to apologise to the defendants and refused to accept the testimony of those who said the English first caused the riot and used weapons. On 27 June 1906, the court, in which the majority were British, imposed very strict punishments: Four sentenced to death by hanging, many in forced labour and others in public flogging. The condemned were executed the next day, June 28, at Ntensouai, the area of the episodes, as an example.
Cavafy obviously chose as the title of one of his poems the relevant date of June 26 because he wanted to denounce the inhuman verdict. Particularly, he was deeply moved by the hanging of two very young men, the name of one of which he notes in pencil at the end of the poem, Iousef Hussein Selim. He was 25 years old, but the poet chose the age of 17 years to excite the readers more.
Another aspect of his political and poetic – and not only – stance was that he was asking from 1891 for the return of the Elgin Marbles to their homeland, and by 1893 the unification of Cyprus with Greece.
Through his poetry emerges a clear and readable political stance. Cavafy ridicules, sneers and demystifies the decline of a world that whatever it does, to whatever tricks it resorts, is doomed to fall irrevocably. In his poems he is using the conquest of Greek and Hellenistic land by the Roman Empire to express his opposition toward the sovereignty of England at the time.
One of the most serious scholars of Cavafy’s work (and also an Alexandrian poet, writer, scholar and writer), George Vrisimitzakis, in his work Η πολιτική του Καβάφη” says that “the policy of Cavafy is a political frustration, but also an effort of adjustment. His policy is not a policy conquerors use when undergoing expansion, but use it when once they finished conquering are struggling for not to be conquered themselves, not to be assimilated, not to be absorbed by upcoming new enemies.”
It must be emphasized here that George Vrisimitzakis -in my opinion, an equally significant, but unfortunately forgotten figure of the Greek Letters of Alexandria during this period- was the first to speak about the political attitude of Cavafy, as the poet was still alive. In 1926 (seven years before the poet’s death, in 1933), George Vrisimitzakis, apparently with the consent and approval of the poet himself, gave the small but rather remarkable study entitled “Η πολιτική του Καβάφη”, in which analyzes the Cavafy’s political stance as “a trim adjustment policy,” a policy not combative and rebellious, but defensive, which in principle designed to survival and then preserve the identity and integrity of the oppressed.
G. P. Savvides, writes that Cavafy is a political poet in the sense of its historical dimension and his social consciousness raised in the past and reflected in the future of Hellenism as a privileged expression of the Mediterranean Culture. Like any worthy artist, Cavafy can only be a witness of his nation and his time.” (“Μικρά Καβαφικά”, Volume II). “Was politicized, but not a partisan. He was deifying nor persons, nor statements” continues G. P. Savvides. (In the same work).
During the same period in Greece Cavafy accepts relentless criticism and rejection not only from conservatives and irredentist critics and writers who considered him as a dangerous man (Fotos Politis, George Theotokas, Elias Voutieridis and even Kostis Palamas) but also from militants of the Left who fought him fiercely. Costas Varnalis saw only negatives in Cavafy’s poetry (faulty technique, false language, poor vocabulary, lack of musicality), Markos Avgeris resembles him as a… squirrel in his cage, morally isolated, and away from the adventures of the society, and even Giannis Psycharis described him as a… jackass of the demotic language.
But exactly 20 years after the study of G. Vrisimitzakis to the defenders of Cavafy (Gr. Xenopoulos, Alkis Thrylos, Galatea Kazantzakis, Angelos Sikelianos, Tellos Agras) George Seferis been added, who on December 11, 1946, in a lecture at British Council on “CP Cavafy, T. S. Elliott: parallels”, presented another Cavafy correlating his epigram “Those who fought for the Achaean League” (in Ed. Keeley’s translation) with the Asia Minor Catastrophe. The ice had now begun to break.
In 1958 Stratis Tsirkas by his work “Ο Καβάφης και η εποχή του” showed irrefutable evidence of how little self-centered was the poetry of Cavafy, how tied to specific events of the era and of his city was. Since new valuable works for the poetry and the political attitude of Constantine Cavafy that saw the light of day as the work of Stratis Tsirkas “Ο πολιτικός Καβάφης” in 1971, but also lectures, symposia and scientific interventions mainly by G. P. Savvides, who is also the owner of the archive of C P. Cavafy, Dimitris N. Maronitis and others.
Στρατής Τσίρκας, Ο Καβάφης και η εποχή του, εκδόσεις Κέδρος,1958
Στρατής Τσίρκας, Ο πολιτικός Καβάφης, εκδόσεις Κέδρος,1980
Γ. Βρισιμιτζάκης, Η πολιτική του Καβάφη, Επιθεώρηση Τέχνης
Γ.Π. Σαββίδης, Μικρά Καβαφικά, εκδόσεις Ερμής,1985.