Today’s poem is my translation of another work by that unique poet of Egyptian Alexandria, Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), who wrote in Greek. It is titled Κεριά, pronounced kair-YA. It means simply
The days to come stand before us
Like a row of lighted candles —
Golden, warm, and lively.
The days gone by remain behind,
A sad line of extinguished candles,
The nearest still smoking;
Cold candles, melted and bent.
I don’t want to look at them; their form saddens me,
And it saddens me to remember their first light.
I look ahead to my lit candles.
I don’t want to turn back, to see and tremble:
How fast the dark line grows —
How fast the extinguished candles multiply.
The poem gives a clear visual image of the swift passing of life, of how one eventually realizes that the days behind are many more than the days likely left ahead. And every older person knows that the older one gets, the more time seems to speed up.
Many people, as they age, like to dwell on the past and its memories. But here Cavafy says it makes him fearful to think of all the “dead” days gone by, and it is sad for him remember them as they once were but are no more. Better, he says, not to dwell on the past, but to look ahead at what still remains of life, without comparing it to what came before. All too often, comparing the present to the past can be depressing, particularly as one ages and more and more people disappear from one’s life, and one’s abilities begin to wane. One sees fewer and fewer lit candles ahead, and even their number is only a hopeful guess.
It makes one think of these old words from Dante’s Divine Comedy:
Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria.
“No greater pain than to recall, in misery, the happy times.”
I am always impressed by the simplicity and beauty of Cavafy’s poetry. Many modern poets, with their needless and unpleasant obscurity and crudity, could learn much from it.