restricted access Cavafy and the Sea
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Cavafy and the Sea Michael Pieris ΤουλάχιστονστηνθάλασσαμαςπλÎ-ουμε- νεϕάτηςΚϕπϕου,τηςΣυϕίας,καιτηςΑιγϕπτου, αγαπημÎ-νατωνπατϕίδωνμαςνεϕά. —Cavafy, Επάνοδος από την Ελλάδα [1914] (Cavafy 1975: 368) It may be true to say that "untraveled" Alexandrians neglected [Cavafy]; but the same is not true of those who had traveled—the uomini navigati, to use an old favorite expression. I am, of course, taking the word "traveled," navigato, chiefly in its metaphorical sense, that is, people with experience of life. -Vrisimitzakis 1975: 86 [written in 1928] Introduction Cavafy is usually seen as a poet of an enclosed urban space, a poet of the city, of its neighborhoods, houses, and rooms.1 Many scholars and critics, starting from the well-known poem "Θάλασσα του πϕωιου" (published in 1915), have exaggerated the element of his alientation from nature. To make such a judgment, however, is tacitly to avoid the numerous other instances in which nature, and the sea in particular , appear in Cavafy's poetry. A good example of this attitude is Panayotopoulos' essay "Cavafy: Poet of the Enclosed Space" (1982: 89-102), first published in 1946. He established this specific image of the poet, adopting earlier partial observations such as those of Malanos (1957: 134), who had claimed in 1933 that nature in general and the sea in particular were banished from Cavafy's poems after 1900. Two more careful and sensitive critics, however, have pointed to a different perspective. Just as Sareyannis, in his 1949 essay "Cavafy, Man of the Crowd," dismissed the simplistic notion of Cavafy's agoraphobic isolation and loneliness (1964: 80-91), so Vrisimitzakis, in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Volume 7, 1989. 273 274 Michael Pieris his 1928 pioneering article "The Greekness of the Work of Cavafy," offered a number of vital observations on the presence of the sea in Cavafy's poetry (1975: 61-72). He noted, for example, Cavafy's references to shipping, emigration, trade, colonization, voyages, and seafaring . Yet this seminal text was never followed up; subsequent scholars seem not to have realized its importance in helping us to understand the function of maritime themes in the poetry of the Alexandrian. Careful examination of the whole of Cavafy's poetical work (including the canon, the rejected and unpublished poems, the unfinished poems, and the titles of poems that have not survived) reveals that—whether directly or indirectly, literally or metaphorically, in reality or in representation, as a theme or as a setting—the sea appears in no less than 47 poems. This is 17% of his total poetic output. Investigation of the role of maritime themes in Cavafy's verse is imperative. The sea in its various manifestations may also be connected to or combined with other major themes of his work, and may illuminate them from a novel angle—themes such as the quest for alternative historical and geographical settings or the contrast between nature and artifice. If we follow the development of the sea theme from Cavafy's early poems to those of his maturity, moreover, we will be better able to watch his gradual romantic, Parnassian, and symbolist evolution toward an absolutely personal kind of visionary realism. From the thematic point of view, there is no doubt that we are dealing with a number of seas: that of the sensual landscape (linked with themes of hedonism, art, memory, etc.); that of the historical and political aspect (connected to the topics of sea battles, political exile, coastal colonies, etc.); and that of social and economic considerations (combined with themes such as emigration and occupational involvement with the sea). Nor should we forget the poems in which the action simply takes place on board ship; these form a small but fascinating group. While here I am concerned only with Cavafy's experience as a poet, his personal involvement with the sea requires some preliminary comment.2 First of all, both of Cavafy's parents originated from Constantinople , an imperial, mercantile city situated between two seas. In addition, he was born and spent nearly all his life in another maritime cosmopolis, Alexandria. At two formative periods in his early life (the transitions from boyhood to adolescence and from adolescence to manhood), moreover, Cavafy's family circumstances obliged him to spend four years in Liverpool (1873-77) and then another three in Constantinople (1882...


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