Saturday, 6 June 2015

Cavafy and English Decadence

Constantine Cavafy's cousin Maria Zambaco
by her lover Edward Burne-Jones.
Constantine Cavafy’s adolescence in England has long been buried in obscurity; and much of his creative life in Alexandria has been unexplained.  But now we have a work of literary criticism backed by genealogy and solid ethnography.  The revelations are startling yet suddenly everything falls into place. 

Maria Zambaco scandalised London society when she appeared nude in Burne-Jones' Phyllis and Demophoon.
In revealing Cavafy’s exposure to aestheticism in England and linking it to the decadence of his poetry, Peter Jeffreys in his forthcoming book Reframing Decadence has done more than follow a literary thread; he has shown how Cavafy was literally a child of these movements.
I have been reading Reframing Decadence in proof; when it is published in October by Cornell University Press it will enlarge and transform the way we see Cavafy.

Peter Jeffrey's
remarkable new book.
The Cavafys were tied by marriage, baptism and business through three generations to other leading Greek merchant families settled in England early in the nineteenth century.  In London Cavafy’s wealthy extended family were patrons of the arts.  Their women were friends, models and lovers of such avant garde figures as Edward Burne-Jones, James McNeil Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rosetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, and some were also artists in their own right.

Venus modelled by Maria
Zambaco in Laus Veneris
by Burne-Jones.
The theme of depravity resulting from over-indulgence runs through Cavafy’s erotic poetry – a theme Cavafy would have encountered with some immediacy, to give just one example, in Burne-Jones’ painting Laus Veneris based on Swinburne’s poem of the same name where the model for the thwarted goddess of myth was Cavafy’s own cousin, the magnificent Maria Zambaco, the notoriously spurned mistress of Burne-Jones – ‘With loves burnt out and unassuaged desires’.

As Jeffreys himself writes, the avant garde aesthetes ‘comprise a genealogy equally as important to our understanding of Cavafy as that of his own family, if not even more significant’.

By the time Burne-Jones had finished his painting the Cavafys had lost all their money and returned to Alexandria and a life of genteel indigence.  

Cavafy in Alexandria in 1901.
From E M Forster we have the image of Cavafy in a straw hat standing at an angle to the universe, a man alone in a city which would soon cease to be a universe at all.

But in recovering Cavafy’s English years Jeffreys has shown how they gave shape to the poet’s technique and sensibility and directed his art for the rest of his life.   

With this new advance, Jeffreys is well on his way towards a comprehensive literary biography of Constantine Cavafy. 

Maria Zambaco in Burne-Jones' Love Among the Ruins.