“The Penitent Magdalen” (detail) by Georges de la Tour
C.P. Cavafy in “Candles” (1984), regarded by himself as ‘one of the best things [he] ever wrote’ (Cavafy qtd. in Liddell 139), transforms the abstract conception of daily birth of life into a metaphorical image of a row of candles, in which the first-person persona’s past and future are symbolised respectively by the burnt-out and lighted candles:
Day by day we are born as night retires, no more possessing aught of our former life, estranged from our course of yesterday, and beginning to-day the life that remains. Do not then call thyself, old man, abundant in years; for today thou hast no share in what is gone. (Palladas qtd. in Mackail 293)
The days to come are standing right before us,
Like a row of little lighted candles –
Golden, warm, and lively little candles.
The bygone days are left behind,
a dismal row of burned-out candles;
those that are nearest smoking still,
cold candles, melted and bent.
I don’t want to see them; their sight saddens me,
and it saddens me to recall their former glow.
I look ahead at my still lighted candles.
I don’t want to turn around, lest I see and shudder
how fast the darksome line grows longer,
how fast the burned-out candles multiply.
(Cavafy, Mackridge & Sachperoglou 3)
Although Cavafy acknowledges one’s non-possession of one’s former life through the allegory of the extinguished candles, “Candles” is not in complete consonance with “Daily Birth”. As opposed to the persona of “Daily Birth”, who declares ‘our’ estrangement from yesterday and rejects life as a meaningful journey of accumulative experiences, the extinguished yet not invisible candles suggest life’s totality is dependent on the past.
In addition, the description of the recent past – the nearest burnt-out candles – as “smoking still” in the second stanza, and the distress of revisiting the once glorious but haunting memories in the third indicate the first-person persona is living in the shadow of the past. Hence, in spite of a perpetual departure of the past from now, Cavafy sees in the absence an existential presence, like the voices ‘of those who have died, or of those / who are lost to us like the dead [… ,which] speak […] in our thoughts’ in his “Voices” (qtd. in Cavafy & Mackridge 3).
Such deviation from “Daily Birth” is then followed up and further developed in the last stanza of “Candles” in which Cavafy’s influence from “The Shadow of Life” becomes obvious. Fearful is the persona not only in the recollection of the past, but also in the recognition of the swift consumption of life. While “The Shadow of Life” laments that ‘[fools] and children are mankind to weep the dead, and not the flower of youth perishing’ (Theognis qtd. in Mackail 292), Cavafy’s insightful reading of and allusion to the epigram are evident in his persona’s knowing fear of witnessing the passing youth.
However, unlike “The Shadow of Life” which mocks those who grieve for the dead but not for fleeting youth, “Candles” has no direct or indirect suggestions that ‘death is better than life’, a historically ‘settled conviction’ of Greek poets and philosophers on nihilism and a ‘feeling that […] is no more caprice of melancholy’ (Mackail 86). Rather, underlain in Cavafy’s persona is the discomfort and pain of the living whose existential crisis is entirely presented through the repeated reluctance to admit the truth of the irrevocable youth and confront it under the aura of the lingering past.
Simultaneously attempting to ‘look ahead’ and shape the bygone as the extinguished yet not invisible candles, Cavafy manifests not only the intellectual-versus-emotional struggle between the consciousness of knowing life’s daily birth and the unsettlement of living under the shadow of life, but also a wish to overcome the latter with the former so as to escape from existential angst.
“Candles” exhibits Cavafy’s masterly imitation and his ambivalent interpretations of the Greek epigrams, for it reveals his ambiguity between nihilism in “Daily Birth” and existentialism, the value of transient youth, in “The Shadow of Life”, as well as their shared notion – life is ephemeral.
- Cavafy, C.P. with introduction by Peter Mackridge. The Collected Poems. Ed. Anthony Hirst. Trans. Evangelos Sachperoglou. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
- Liddell, Robert. Cavafy. London: Duckworth, 1974. Print.
- Mackail, J. W., ed, trans. Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology. , J. W. MackailNew York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1906. Print.
- Mackail, J. W. Lectures on Greek Poetry. 2nd ed. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1911. Print.
[Editor’s note: The above is an excerpt from the essay “Regarding Nihilism, Fatalism & Hedonism: Cavafy’s Revival of “Life” from Mackail’s Select Epigrams from the Greek Anthology” for the MA course Cavafy: the making of a modernist at King’s College London.]
Nicola Chan Oi Ching is a BA graduate in Stylistics and Comparative Literature (Class of 2015). [Click here to read all entries by Nicola.]