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John P. Anton C. P. CAVAFY'S ARS POETICA ' It is generally recognized that Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was not born a poet but became one only through persistence and labor, reaching his "first step" sometime after the midpoint of his life. In his effort to assess the quality of his earlier poetic production and sharpen his sensitivity in facing self-criticism, he decided to put in writing his personal thoughts on his work sometime in 1903. The text was written in English in a personal shorthand Cavafy had devised for his own use. It was found among the papers he left to A. Sengopoulos and published for the first time in 1963 by M. Peridis, who also supplied the suitable title Ars Poetica. It falls outside the scope of this essay to discuss the antecedents of this document. Taken as a whole, the text has all the clarity and directness required of a testament designed to serve as a personal guide and handbook. The problems it discusses are limited to the needs of the poet. In this regard, the Ars Poetica has neither the range of topics nor the theoretical scope of, for instance, Aristotle's Poetics. It is quite certain that the ideas that preoccupy Cavafy in the Ars Poetica had been on his mind for a period of years. However, the Ars Poetica is his first prose piece where he gives a systematic treatment to technical and critical issues directly related to the assessment of his work and his role as a poet. In order to project here a clear image of Cavafy's struggle to reach his technical maturity which came after 1910, we need first to discuss the persistent problems he faced during this crucial decade, then to examine the attitudes and values he embodied in certain representative early poems, and finally to relate them to the guiding principles he formulated in his self-addressed poetics of 1903. A number of interrelated problems confronted Cavafy in his late twenties and throughout his thirties. They emerged one by one, to 85 86Philosophy and Literature make more pressing the demand for a consistent solution and a complete recasting of his outlook. Coming to terms with them was extremely difficult. Aside from the emotional and sexual pressures he had to face alone, there was the absence of suitable ideas and conceptual tools to provide him with even the rudiments of an intellectual framework. Whatever he borrowed from Europe and England, or resurrected from his own Hellenic heritage, proved either beyond assimilation or insufficiently digested. The lingering issues fell roughly into four areas. (i) Despite his determination to devote his life to the writing of poetry, the quality of his work was discouraging. He knew this and as a result he often expressed uncertainty about his ability to proceed. Time and again he appeared suffering from a feeling of inadequacy, but nevertheless he sought to engage a reflective mood from which to draw encouragement and hope. (ii) On the theoretical side, he identified with the long tradition which assigned a coveted cultural role to the savant-poet as discloser of truth and spokesman for humanity; this despite the prevailing climate of opinion in his immediate environment which recognized no such high position in his case. Cavafy knew that his standing with the Greek community of Alexandria had gradually dwindled with the loss of family wealth and his lowly employment, and also that his expectations to be respected in his role as a poet and leader in communal affairs were futile. This denial of personal recognition in a society dominated by commerce and finance contributed to his mood of depression. The feeling of being an outcast, despite his associations with the upper social circles of Alexandria, became a constant irritant to his sense of pride. (iii) The course of culture, the destiny of human institutions and the workings of history, became puzzles as he tried to view them through the opaque glass of disillusionment. These were the grand themes actively discussed in the writings of leading European intellectuals, but to the young poet they had a different personal urgency. His vital concern in this connection was not understanding science...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 85-109
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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