The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 519

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.

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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 describing how, the moment he learned of the “calamity,” he went to Myris’s house but did not enter it, since he “avoids” going into Christian houses, especially at times of sorrow or celebrations. The statement itself indicates the distance between the speaker and the beloved. The speaker stands in the hall, outside the room where the dead body lies; he can see a little of the large, rich room, suggesting that this Christian family is well-to-do.

The speaker, saying, “I stood and wept in a corner of the hall,” regrets that his and his friends’ future parties will no longer be worth much without Myris. Beside him, some old women talk about Myris’s pious end, of his holding a cross and having the name of Christ on his lips. Four Christian priests enter, praying “to Jesus/ or to Mary (I don’t know their religion very well).”

Here the speaker remarks that he and his friends had known that Myris was a Christian but that Myris had taken a more than active part in their wild parties, although now the speaker remembers a few moments when casual references to religion had been made and the young man had drawn away.

The priests continue to pray, and the speaker becomes aware of how intense they are. At last he begins to realize that he is truly losing, has lost, his love, that Myris has become one with the Christians and is now a stranger or, perhaps, has always been a stranger. Overcome, the speaker runs from their “horrible house” before his memory of Myris can be changed by their Christianity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

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 emotion is there, it is expressed by the silence, the lack of words, rather than by their presence.

Now, however, direct expression of feeling takes over: “I stood and cried,” the speaker says. Immediately afterward, he repeats the words “I thought upon” three times in the next seven lines (in Greek this is one word, suggesting “reflecting” upon something). That is, he moves back to the past, remembering aspects of Myris and so attempting to recover the past.

Then he returns once more to description, to the external, presenting the old women and the priests, at the same time emphasizing his alienation from Myris by his admission that he knows very little about Christianity.

Returning to the past, he remarks that he and his friends had known Myris was a Christian, but that Myris had lived as though that fact did not matter, not even speaking of his religion. Still, the speaker begins to reveal how little he had known Myris, since only now does he seem to remember the times that Myris pulled back from their pagan words or acts.

The last section mixes description and emotion. It exists almost entirely in the speaker’s present, for the past has been lost. As the priests pray, the speaker is seized with the awareness that Myris has left him, has become one with his own people, the Christians. The speaker, fearing that he has been deluded by his own passion into believing that he knew Myris, flees, hoping to hang onto some positive memory before it is changed by the Christian funeral service. The last line of the poem, with its fear of loss, is a significantly Cavafian line, since loss of love, of home, of culture is a major theme in his work.

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Themes