The Afternoon Sun
This room, how well I know it.
Now they’re renting it, and the one next to it,
as offices. The whole house has become
an office building for agents, businessmen, companies.
This room, how familiar it is.
The couch was here, near the door,
a Turkish carpet in front of it.
Close by, the shelf with two yellow vases.
On the right—no, opposite—a wardrobe with a mirror.
In the middle the table where he wrote,
and the three big wicker chairs.
Beside the window the bed
where we made love so many times.
They must still be around somewhere, those old things.
Beside the window the bed;
the afternoon sun used to touch half of it.
. . . One afternoon at four o’clock we separated
for a week only. . . And then—
that week became forever.
C P Cavafy (1863 – 1933)
translated by E Keeley
I liked this poem on a first reading. The last stanza had a poignancy that only comes from an intimate personal separation. Grief is rekindled by returning to a house and entering a specific room known well from years ago.
Looking at each stanza and the structure of the poem …
S1 – The first sentence tells it all – this room is significant. And the rest of the stanza states what unfortunately has happened to the house.
S2 – This one line stanza returns to the room, and the poet’s familiarity. It has its own space making the one line stand out in thought. We can imagine the person standing at the open door looking into the room and the emotive response as memories flood back.
S3 – Then what follows is a detailed description of how the room used to be – every item gradually brought to the forefront of memory compared to the new look of the room. And then the significant last sentence, remembering the bed near the window where love took place.
S4 –A one line reflection thinking about the items in the room and what happened to them. Time has taken away physical things as well as emotional loss. Again the one line has space making it stand out in thought.
S5 – The bed has now become the main focus of the poem, and how the sunlight played on half of it. Sunlight has wonderful associations and so to the bed of course. And we can imagine the scene without the need for specifics. And the fact that the sun only touched half of the bed just as coming back only touches part of the original experience.
S6 – And then that poignant statement of the partial separation that became the forever. There is no need for any explanation on why this has happened. The reader can bring to mind his or her own personal experience of intimate loss. So both reader and poet share an emotional intensity.
I like the way this poem is structured as the reader walks-through an instant in life. It is a poem of place as well as grief and memory. The poet goes back to a place of great significance. And when we do this we take our time to absorb the new environment holding the image of the past in the mind as a reference. This is why I like the two one line stanzas because they create a sort of time delay in the reading of the event as it unfolds.
For interest, here is a clip of a sung version of this poem in Greek by Yannis Petritsis. It might bring an emotional response akin to that experienced from reading the poem. (There are subtitles in English.)
C P Cavafy was an Egyptiot Greek poet, journalist and civil servant. He is one of the most important figures in Greek poetry, and in Western poetry. His poems are, typically, concise but intimate evocations of real or literary figures and milieu that have played roles in Greek culture. Uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality, and a fatalistic existential nostalgia are some of his defining themes. He was a perfectionist, obsessively refining every single line of his poetry. He left 155 poems plus more that were incomplete. His mature style was a free iambic form, free in the sense that verses rarely rhyme and are usually from 10 to 17 syllables. In his poems, the presence of rhyme usually implies irony.
I must add as a follow-up that there is a time to move on and look to the future, hard as it might be. And although the world is changing rapidly fast, the new-all-different tomorrow will always provide opportunities to enrich us with joy.