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Truth and Equivocation in Constantine Cavafy’s Poems of Antiquity

Roger Field

Abstract


The Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1883–1933) spent most of his life in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Cavafy liked to think of himself as an historical poet. A large proportion of his poetry is set outside of Greece in the eastern, southern and south-eastern Mediterranean world at a time when the centre of Greek culture had shifted from ‘mainland Greece’ to cities such as Alexandria and Antioch, when a cosmopolitan Greek culture was contained by the Roman Empire, and later when Christianity began to take hold and challenge the Hellenic world and its values. Cavafy also liked to think of all his poetry – whether the setting was his own time and place or that of antiquity – in three categories of historical, philosophical and hedonistic, while acknowledging their overlap.

This paper concentrates on his poems of antiquity, and within that on those poems which deal with questions of ambiguity, equivocation, and various forms of non-truth telling. The paper’s critical-theoretical beginning relies on the equivocal prophecies of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, William Empson’s notions of ambiguity and dramatic irony, and Cavafy’s theatrical representation of history, and then turns to Derrida’s essay on the history of the lie.

Keywords: Constantine Cavafy, poetry, antiquity, ambiguity, self-deception, William Empson, Jacques Derrida




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