Classical Antiquity in the Historical Poetry of Constatine P. Cavafy and Wystan H. Auden

Nicoletta Asciuto

Durham University



Constantine Petrou Cavafy (1863-1933) was a Greek-speaking poet living in Alexandria, Egypt, where he worked mainly as a civil servant at the Department of Irrigation. Apart from his childhood years spent in England first (Liverpool and London), and consequently in Constantinople, he always lived in Alexandria, his hometown, and his love for Alexandrian history and culture permeates his own poetry, although he was effectively a Greek (born to Greek parents, and baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church) in a town, whose more recent Islamic customs could hardly be considered Greek anymore. [1] In his poetry, past and present become almost one for him:[2] walking along the impoverished streets of Alexandria at the turn of the century, he would make Cleopatra and her sons, Antony, Julian the Apostate, Apollonios of Tyana, and many other characters come back to life, and mingle with present-day Alexandrians. British novelist E. M. Forster, who first met Cavafy in Alexandria in 1916, would have later described him as ‘a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe’.[3] Cavafy’s lack of motion is indicative of his poetry: somehow, time did not pass for him, as if he had always been at a privileged angle, looking at his much-beloved Alexandria, and witnessed the city’s entire history.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973), contrarily, did not spend much time in his hometown and in fact left England for the USA slightly before the outbreak of World War II, in January 1939, together with his friend Christopher Isherwood,[4] to become an American citizen seven years later.[5] Critics have argued how Auden wanted to become a ‘Modern Man’, and this could effectively be achieved only in ‘rootless’ America, leaving his country’s and his own past behind him.[6] And yet, America also brought him reconciliation with his own past: there, he attended the Episcopalian Church in New York in 1940, which involved, effectively, resuming the Anglo-Catholic faith of his English childhood.[7] In his poetry written out of England, Auden also felt the need to return to Classics he had studied in school:[8] Greek and Roman civilizations blur with modern ones, and create a unified, motionless temporal space.

This commixture of times drew Auden towards Cavafy. In his introduction to the 1961 edition of The Complete Poems of Cavafy, Auden makes important claims on the Alexandrian poet, and especially on Cavafy’s influence on his own work: 

‘Ever since I was first introduced to his poetry […] over thirty years ago, C. P. Cavafy has remained an influence on my own writing; that is to say, I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all. Yet I do not know a word of Modern Greek, so that my only access to Cavafy’s poetry has been through English and French translations. This perplexes and a little disturbs me. Like everybody else, I think, who writes poetry, I have always believed the essential difference between prose and poetry to be that prose can be translated into another tongue but poetry cannot. […] What, then, is it in Cavafy’s poems that survives translation and excites? Something I can only call, most inadequately, a tone of voice, a personal speech. I have read translations of Cavafy made by many different hands, but every one of them was immediately recognizable as a poem by Cavafy; nobody else could possibly have written it. Reading any poem of his, I feel: “This reveals a person with a unique perspective on the world.”’[9] 

Cavafy’s ‘unique perspective on the world’, or ‘slight angle’, symbolizes his own peculiar imagination, building up visions of the world perceived as real and experienced, and yet failing to be. According to Forster again, Cavafy’s poems ‘reveal a beautiful and curious world [which] comes into being through the world of experience, but it is not experience, for the poet is even more incapable than most people of seeing straight’ (Cavafy’s ‘world within’): ‘since the poet cannot hope to escape from this world, he should at all costs arrange and rule it sensibly’.[10] Cavafy and Auden thus share a strenuous attempt at escaping the real world of experience by returning to the world of their own sensibility, represented in both poets by an attraction to the classical world. Both Cavafy and Auden considered themselves historical poets,[11] without being effectively ‘historical’ in terms of writing historically accurate poems, but rather for their placing themselves directly in history: the present is not simply the moment we live in now, but rather a simultaneous participation of anachronic moments. In Cavafy’s, and Auden’s mind, the Siege of Troy, the Fall of Rome, and the coming of Christianity all have happened, and continue to happen before their eyes.

We can consider their historicism closely by juxtaposing Cavafy’s ‘Trojans’ and Auden’s ‘The Fall of Rome’. Although the poems’ historical moments differ greatly, both Cavafy and Auden opt for a precise moment in history which can relate to idiosyncrasies of the present.[12] In ‘Trojans’, Cavafy identifies Trojans and their bad luck at war with his own generation:[13] in spite of the Trojans’ efforts and a few victories, Achilles will still destroy them, and Alexandrians must equally fail, (‘When something always comes up to stop us. | Achilles leaps out of the trench in front of us | and terrifies us with his violent shouting. | Our efforts are like those of the Trojans.’, ll. 6-9).[14] Achilles’ abrupt appearance represents here the various unexpected misfortunes. Cavafy’s pessimism mirrors that of a historian, who by experience of human behaviour knows that humanity hardly ever learns by its mistakes.[15] Similarly, Auden identifies the fall of the Roman Empire with modern decline.[16] In ‘The Fall of Rome’, the insertion of a ‘cerebrotonic Cato’ (l. 13)[17] as well as a lazy and apathetic Cesar whose bed is always warm as he never gets up to see Roman civilization’s steady decline (CP 333, ll. 17-20) is symbolical of Auden’s sardonic critique of modernity’s selfishness and self-righteousness.[18] Auden’s particular interest for the fall of the Roman Empire sprang from his realization of its connection with contemporary events. Particularly, he thought that the third century and the age of Augustine were very much like the twentieth century — an age of anxiety.[19] Auden firmly believed modern civilization had to collapse in a similar fashion as the Roman Empire for its corrupted bureaucracy, criminality and religious persecutions, almost deservingly.[20] In the ominously entitled poem ‘The Ides of March’ (1911), Cavafy reminds Caesar, in the style of a general admonition for humanity, of the necessity of being humble, and not neglecting the importance of avoiding following certain ambitions:


‘And the higher you go,

the more searching and careful you need to be.


and when you reach your summit, Caesar at last—

when you assume the role of someone that famous—

then be especially careful as you go out into the street,

a conspicuous man of power with your retinue’

(CCP 30)


Cavafy describes a particular historical moment as he himself would see and imagine it, then applying it to a new purpose: Caesar is for Cavafy a symbol of punished hýbris,[21] the example of a moral lesson universally applicable to all human beings of all ages.

Beside the common interest in the declining Roman Empire, Cavafy and Auden also shared a fascination for the historical transition from Paganism to Christianity. Auden, certainly influenced by Charles Cochrane’s influential work Christianity and Classical Culture,[22] sees Paganism as an empty form of apathy.[23] In For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (1941) he contextualizes Jesus Christ’s birth in an indifferent and drowsy New York, paralysed by heavy snow falling on a bored and yawning Caesar in a confounded (and confounding) time with clocks that have nothing to say.[24] Caesar, Hercules and Arachne are still a living part of the society Auden is addressing, just as much as Christ is miraculously born every year at Christmas.[25] Still, classical characters once again are depicted in a irreparably declining mood. Ultimately, the world will be saved by Christianity, not by Hercules’ ‘extraordinary promise’ (CP 349, l. 16). Auden felt human beings had come to the end of an epoch[26] much like the transition from Paganism to Christianity. For Cavafy, this was a possible way to adjust his homosexual nature with his Christian beliefs. In ‘Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340’ (1929), a man shocked by the death of his friend and companion of wild and lustful entertainments Myris as a Christian, with a cross in his hands – a discrepancy conveying his estrangement (CP 162-164). Once again, Cavafy chooses Alexandria as background, but focuses on a small, almost insignificant event out of his own world, mingling history with homosexual eroticism.[27] By 1929, Cavafy had perfectly resumed his early historical interests as a way of adjusting his homosexuality with Christian beliefs. In other words, classical antiquity could somehow reconcile his sensuality with his Christian identity.[28]

Gods’ return upon the Earth is similarly connected with sensuality and looser behaviour. In ‘Ionic’, Cavafy declares:


‘That we’ve broken their statues,

That we’ve driven them out of their temples,

doesn’t mean at all that the gods are dead.

O land of Ionia, they’re still in love with you,

their souls still keep your memory.’

(CCP 34)


Cavafy alludes to a historical event from around 400 A.D., when Christian converts in Ionia drove the old gods out of their temples metaphorically by breaking their statues, and blends it with a streak of eroticism, introducing the figure of a young, deified ethereal figure in love with Greece, somewhat satisfying his present personal hedonistic and sexual bias.[29] Similarly, in ‘One of Their Gods’ an evocation of the city of Selefkia becomes the background to another divine descent, with a god coming down from his divine abode to look for more earthly pleasures in the city (CCP 72).

Auden’s impressions of Pagan gods are less straightforward, and again highlight their apathy. ‘The Epigoni’, or the imitators, should not invoke Apollo, because ‘[t]he pleasure-loving gods had died in their chairs | And would not get up again’ (CP 605, ll. 2-3). Yet, ‘Cattivo Tempo’ is a celebration of the return of two little devils from early Christian beliefs, Nibbar and Tubervillus,[30] whose arrival with the Sirocco causes both intellectual and moral degradation,[31] secluding the poet to his narcissism.[32] Interestingly, Auden links the return of these supernatural entities (whether gods or devils) to the sensuality of writing: “dead” pagan gods cannot be troubled by unimportant barbarian writers, whereas little fiendish creatures come back precisely to tease writers and poets like himself.

Cavafy’s and Auden’s continuous return to the classical world in their historical imagination signposts a sense of temporal exile from the present. While Cavafy did perceive himself as an outsider, perhaps not so much exiled from Alexandria or Greece,[33] but from his own times, as his poetical mind created a place where he could feel at home,[34] in a mixture of private memories, poetic visions, historical notions, and erotic perceptions. Auden, self-exiled to America in order to become a ‘Modern Man’ with no past, nevertheless felt the need to create a connection with the classical world, which would become his new past, joining the cry of mythical Greek and Roman characters, when his own present time was too meaningless and cruel to witness. 



Works Cited 

Auden, Wystan Hugh. Collected Poems. London: Faber & Faber, 1991.

Cavafy, Constantine Petrou. Collected Poems. Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Ed. George Savidis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992.


Secondary Literature 

Auden, Wystan Hugh. ‘Introduction’. The Complete Poems of Cavafy. Trans. Rae Dalven. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961.

—————————. ‘The Fall of Rome’. From Gibbon to Auden: Essays on the Classical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Bowersock, Glen Warren. From Gibbon to Auden: Essays on the Classical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Bowra, Cecil Maurice. The Creative Experiment. London: Macmillan, 1967.

Carpenter, Humphrey. W. H. Auden: A Biography. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

Clay, Diskin. ‘The Silence of Hermippos: Greece in the Poetry of C. P. Cavafy’ . The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy: Essays on His Life and Work. Ed. Denise Harvey. Athens: Denise Harvey & Company, 1983.

Ewig, Rainer. W. H. Auden: Towards a Postmodern Poetics. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000.

Firchow, Peter Edgerly. W. H. Auden: Contexts for Poetry. London: Associated University Presses, 2002.

Fuller, John. W. H. Auden: A Commentary. London: Faber & Faber, 1998.

Golffing, Francis. ‘The Alexandrian Mind: Notes Toward a Definition’. The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy: Essays on His Life and Work. Ed. Denise Harvey. Athens: Denise Harvey & Company, 1983.

Hecht, Anthony. The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Hynes, Samuel. ‘The Voice of Exile: Auden in 1940’. The Sewanee Review 90.1 (1982), 31-52.

Keeley, Edmund. ‘Cavafy and His Heirs in America’. The Iowa Review 32.3 (2002), 26-39.

——————–. ‘The “New” Poems of Cavafy’. The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy: Essays on His Life and Work. Ed. Denise Harvey. Athens: Denise Harvey & Company, 1983.

Liddell, Robert. ‘Studies in Genius: Cavafy’. The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy: Essays on His Life and Work. Ed. Denise Harvey. Athens: Denise Harvey & Company, 1983.

Murphy Michael. Poetry in Exile: A Study of the Poetry of W. H. Auden, Joseph Brodsky & George Szirtes. London: Greenwich Exchange, 2004.

Politis, Linos. A History of Modern Greek Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973.

Pontani, Filippo Maria. ‘Note’. Poesie di Costantino Kavafis. Milano: Mondadori Editore, 1961.

Seferis, George. ‘Cavafy and Eliot: A Comparison’. The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy: Essays on His Life and Work. Ed. Denise Harvey. Athens: Denise Harvey & Company, 1983.



[1] Linos Politis, A History of Modern Greek Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 186-187, and Cecil Maurice Bowra, The Creative Experiment (London: Macmillan, 1967), p. 29.

[2] George Seferis, ‘Cavafy and Eliot: A Comparison’, in The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy: Essays on his Life and Work, ed. Denise Harvey (Athens: Denise Harvey & Company, 1983), p. 67.

[3] Edward Morgan Forster, ‘The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy’, in Pharos and Pharillon (Richmond: Hogarth Press, 1923), p. 91.

[4] Humphrey Carpenter, W. H. Auden: A Biography (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981), p. 249.

[5] Peter Edgerly Firchow, W. H. Auden: Contexts for Poetry (London: Associated University Presses, 2002), p. 168, and Michael Murphy, Poetry in Exile: A Study of the Poetry of W. H. Auden, Joseph Brodsky & George Szirtes (London: Greenwich Exchange, 2004), p. 1.

[6] Samuel Hynes, ‘The Voice of Exile: Auden in 1940’, in The Sewanee Review 90.1 (1982), pp. 31-52 (34-35).

[7] Carpenter, pp. 297, 301.

[8] Ibid., 306.

[9] Wystan Hugh Auden, ‘Introduction’, in The Complete Poems of Cavafy, trans. Rae Dalven (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1961), p. vii.

[10] Forster, ‘The Poetry of C. P. Cavafy’, p. 93.

[11] Glen Warren Bowersock, From Gibbon to Auden: Essays on the Classical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 137, and Hynes, ‘The Voice of Exile’, p. 31.

[12] Edmund Keeley, ‘The “New” Poems of Cavafy’, in The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy: Essays on his Life and Work, ed. Denise Harvey (Athens: Denise Harvey & Company, 1983), p. 54.

[13] Francis Golffing, ‘The Alexandrian Mind: Notes Toward a Definition’, in The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy, p. 121.

[14] Constantine Petrou Cavafy, Collected Poems, ed. George Savidis and trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992), p. 22. Further references to this edition will be indicated as CCP followed by page number in the text.

[15] Robert Liddell, ‘Studies in Genius: Cavafy’, in The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy, pp. 24-25.

[16] John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (London: Faber & Faber, 1998), pp. 414-415.

[17] Wystan Hugh Auden, Collected Poems (London: Faber & Faber, 1991), p. 333. Further references to this edition will be indicated as CP followed by page number in the text.

[18] Bowersock, p. 195.

[19] Wystan Hugh Auden, ‘The Fall of Rome’, in From Gibbon to Auden: Essays on the Classical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 219.

[20] Auden, ‘The Fall of Rome’, p. 219.

[21] Filippo Maria Pontani, ‘Note’, in Constantino Kavafis, Poesie (Milano: Mondadori Editore, 1961), p. 232.

[22] Bowersock, p. 196.

[23] Fuller, p. 347.

[24] Anthony Hecht, The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W. H. Auden (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), p. 252.

[25] Fuller, p. 346, and Hecht, p. 249.

[26] Hynes, p. 39.

[27] Bowra, p. 41, and Bowersock, p. 137.

[28] Ibid., p. 141.

[29] Edmund Keeley, ‘Cavafy and His Heirs in America’, in The Iowa Review 32.3 (2002), pp. 26-39 (34).

[30] Auden misspells the names of the two devils, which should be Nybbas and Tutevillus, according to M. J. Rudwin’s The Devil in Legend and Literature (1931).

[31] Fuller, p. 422.

[32] Rainer Ewig, W. H. Auden: Towards a Postmodern Poetics (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), p. 176.

[33] Diskin Clay, ‘The Silence of Hermippos: Greece in the Poetry of Cavafy’, in The Mind and Art of C. P. Cavafy, pp. 158, 165, and Bowra, p. 29.

[34] Clay, p. 174, and Bowra, p. 32.