By Maydaa Nadar
Today we celebrate the beloved Greek poet Constantine Cavafy.
He was born on the 29th April 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt. Cavafy passed away in 1933, on the day of his 70th birthday, suffering from larynx cancer.
To this day, Cavafy continues to be a source of inspiration for many and his work still serves as a bridge through which cultures from different backgrounds connect.
Shortly before the almost global coronavirus lockdown, Styliani Voutsa, a Professor of Spanish Linguistics, held a couple of symposiums at the Instituto Cervantes – Spanish Cultural Center in Egypt. The theme: the parallelism between Cavafy and the Spanish remarkable poet Jaime Gil de Biedma, which was the subject of Styliani’s Ph.D.
The event took place to familiarise the public with the Spanish poet, subsequent to naming the Bibliotheca Cervantes in Alexandria after him. For the attendees who wanted to enjoy the works of both poets, Styliani showed some books, including Cavafy’s poetry collections translated to Spanish, the work of Jaime Gil de Biedma and translations of Cavafy’s prose works.
A glimpse of both poets’ lives:
Cavafy was born into a family of high status and his father was a cotton merchant.
After his father died in 1870, Cavafy and his family faced financial problems. Alongside his mother and eight brothers, they relocated in England, as his fathers’ business had branches there.
He never studied at university; nevertheless, he was fluent in English (he stayed in England for eight years) and French. Furthermore, he loved reading and his favourite theme was history. Afterwards, he returned with his mother to Alexandria. “We Greeks call him The Alexandrian,” mentioned Styliani in this regard.
Regarding Jaime Gil de Biedma (1929-1990), he was born in Barcelona (Spain) into a wealthy family. He studied law in Barcelona and Salamanca (Spain). Afterwards, he worked for a tobacco company and spent long periods in Manila (Philippines).
“Jaime Gil de Beidma studied at the University of Salamanca, which is one of the oldest universities not only in Spain, but in Europe as well. This is why achieving my Ph.D. at the mentioned university makes me proud,” she commented.
The Spanish poet belonged to the so called ‘Generation of the Fifties’ (School of Barcelona) that gathered remarkable writers. A year after his death (1991), he was recognised by the literary magazine Ínsula as the most popular poet of the year.
Constantine Cavafy’s literary treasure:
As in the case of some writers identified by their cities – such as Portuguese Fernando Pessoa (Lisbon), Czech Franz Kafka (Prague), and Nikos Kazantzakis (Crete Island) – Cavafy is recognised by Alexandria. “You hear Cavafy, you immediately think of Alexandria and vice versa,” expressed Styliani.
Cavafy’s poems are divided into the following categories: philosophical or didactic poems, erotic-hedonistic poems, and historical and pseudo-historical poems (pseudo-historical means that the poem seems historical, but its characters are unreal). Cavafy’s favourite period was the Hellenistic age (the period between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC till the Battle of Actuim in 31 BC).
“Since we are in Egypt, I recommend you read Cavafy’s poem ‘Alexandrian Kings‘ that depicts a feast celebrated in the time of Cleopatra, Anthony, and their sons including Caesarion,” she added in this respect.
Common aspects that Constantine Cavafy and Jaime Gil de Biedma share:
Irony and tragic sentiment: Because both poets were perfectionists, they did not write much. They had smooth and subtle irony, which sometimes turned into sarcasm or auto-sarcasm, and tragic sentiment that is obviously reflected in Cavafy’s poem ‘Trojans‘.
Their poems’ dramatic character: In Cavafy’s poems ‘Waiting for the Barbarians‘ and ‘Alexandrian Kings‘, he is seemed as a filmmaker or a theatre director who managed to deliver a lot of stenographic details, being aware of the feelings of the crowd. Greek writer Giorgos Seferis even linked him to Proteus, a sea-god who was capable of metamorphosing.
Dramatic monologues: Both wrote poems in the form of dramatic monologues revealing things about themselves. They read the work of English poet and playwright Robert Browning, whose mastery for the dramatic monologues made him one of the most prominent Victorian poets (the Victorian literature was written during the period of Queen Victoria, mainly in English). A model of this type created by the Greek and the Spanish poets are ‘Returning from Greece’ and ‘Against Jaime Gil de Biedma’, respectively.
Moreover, a palpable side in the poems ‘Against Jaime Gil de Biedma’ and Cavafy’s ‘He Swears’ is the poetic voice that was looking forward to abandoning the messy moonlit life, but the poet always returned to the habits he is used to do.
Hedonism: Both poets expressed strong eroticism, where sometimes desire was confessed and fulfilled, or it was undeclared, unfulfilled and repressed. Cavafy was influenced by the Cyrenaics (a Greek school of philosophy founded in the fourth century by Aristippus of Cyrene) who believed that pleasure is the ultimate goal of life. Cavafy’s poems ‘Come Back’ (in which lips, skin and blood recalls the pleasure of the past) and ‘Remember, Body’ reflect this feature.
Classic literature: Constantine Cavafy and Jaime Gil de Biedma were familiar with the classic literature. This is portrayed in Biedma’s poem ‘Pandemic and Celeste’, where he depicted the promiscuous and chaste loves. The two kinds were represented by Venus Pandemos (pandemic) and Venus Urania (Celeste) in the Greek philosopher Plato’s text ‘The Symposium’.
Tempus Fugit: The two poets expressed what is known in Latin as Tempus Fugit, a phrase that indicates how fast time passes, a fact for which we feel ephemeral. ‘Candles’ was Cavafy’s poem that described this reality. Its verses depicted our life as a line of candles, with the lit ones being of the future, while the burnt out ones belong to the past. The poem of Biedma that was written in this regard is called ‘Ode to Youth’.
Fear of ageing: Both of them were not afraid of death as much as they were of ageing, a concept that is notable in the Greek classics. An anecdote narrates that before going to the hospital for treatment, Constantine Cavafy asked his assistant to bring him a bag, after he was brought so, the poet broke down into tears, as he had bought this bag when he was traveling to Cairo to sought adventures. It reminded him of his young days.
Jaime Gil de Biedma’s poem that matches this line is ‘I Will Not Be Young Again’, through which he compared life to a theatre.