Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Cavafy is a poet of the city, of civilization, of social and personal relations, of humans relating to humans. He is not, at least not directly, concerned with the natural—not even with humankind’s relation with the natural. Unlike nature, the individual’s life is not cyclic; it does not repeat itself. Loss, losses of all kinds, are therefore inevitable. Moreover, one must note that Cavafy’s people are confined within themselves; they live in a world of enclosure with the self as all-consuming, since belief in a greater order than oneself has been lost. Writing about characters in history, as well as about the moments of history that give rise to the characters, allows Cavafy to dramatize all of his themes, but especially that of how one person relates to another.

Alexandria in 340 c.e. was a unique historical moment—a high, dramatic moment. The city was still one of the great centers of Greek civilization, a civilization not yet Christianized. Christianity, although it had been made legal by the Roman emperor Constantine some twenty-five or so years earlier, was still years away from being the prevailing religion of the empire. The sons of Constantine were battling for the throne; there was great conflict over what Christianity itself believed.

If one had eyes, however, the end of the old religion was in sight. There is a willful blindness on the part of the speaker. He is concerned only with his pleasures, with his love for Myris, not with the stir of ideas, the immense changes in civilization going on about him.

Cavafy presents him both affectionately and with some distance. The speaker as egoist, locked within himself, is incapable of seeing others as human beings in themselves. At the same moment, he is a lover who has lost his beloved, a sad figure at any time. At the end he may have learned something, but not in time truly to change. Moreover, he reflects Cavafy’s own ambivalence toward Christianity, the religion in which he was reared but into which he never quite fit. The final thematic matters, even teachings, of the poem, then, are that history can and does destroy individuals and individual relationships, that humans live in a world of loss, and that egoism can blind a person.