The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The speaker of this rather long dramatic monologue is a pagan Greek in the city of Alexandria, Egypt, in the year 340 c.e., lamenting the death of his Christian lover. The speaker tells of his visit to the house of the dead man and, of there watching the Christian rites and becoming aware not only that has he lost his lover to death, but that perhaps he never knew him at all. The poem does not quite fit the usual definition of a dramatic monologue, though, in that one cannot be sure whom the speaker is addressing. He may, indeed, be talking half to himself, even as he is reporting what has happened to someone else, someone who may have known the dead man, Myris, but not very well.

The conversational, almost colloquial, intensely felt tone of the poem is expressed in its language, in its lines, and in its word choices. Although the lines have varying numbers of syllables, usually between eleven and fifteen, Constantine P. Cavafy’s basic metrical pattern is a deliberately loose iambic. He uses no rhyme, although, since modern Greek has a rather limited vowel pattern and is a relatively inflected language, there are always sound echoes made by the repeated vowels and by those inflections. The poem is divided into stanzas or, rather, verse paragraphs, of varying length; the first three paragraphs are each four lines each, but the next four are ten, eight, twenty-three, and seventeen lines.

The speaker begins by...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

This is the longest of the poems that Cavafy printed while he was alive. Its very length allows a kind of exploration that shorter poems do not. The gradual lengthening of the stanzas also suggests an intensifying of emotion, a longer explosion of feeling; however, as in most of his later poems, Cavafy makes little use of figures of speech here, no similes, no metaphors, no rhymes except for the partial rhymes given (in the Greek) by the inflected endings of words. Indeed, the first part of this poem seems almost a flat report. As noted above, Cavafy’s language, at least in translation, is conversational and colloquial.

It is structure and language then, not figures, which carry the poem’s meanings; there is a kind of dialectic at play, a gradual revelation of the speaker’s growing awareness. This revelation is given, first, through structure, a shifting between emotional expression and seemingly straight description, and between the past and the present. Second, the revelation is given through language and its “silence,” that is, through statement by implication rather than by direct words.

The only word in the first twelve lines that reveals emotion is the word “calamity,” in the first line: “When I heard of the calamity, that Myris had died.” The next eleven lines are an almost emotionless description of the speaker going to the house and, standing there, observing the displeasure of the relatives of Myris. Although the...

(The entire section is 535 words.)