To Call up the Shades

To insomniacs out there, I recommend the following: non-caffienated hot drinks, theology books, and the formal, vivid poetry of C.P. Cavafy.

Some weeks ago, when I couldn’t sleep, my wife read aloud to me from the nearest book of poetry at hand, which happened to be the collected poems of the Greek poet. Cavafy’s poems can very roughly be divided into two sets. First are his historical poems, set in the Greek-speaking littoral of the Mediterranean, often about specific historical characters, with whom Cavafy is intimately familiar, sometimes about invented characters. So well do these poems recreate the atmosphere of their era, be it 3rd Century BC Asia Minor or Ptolemic Egypt, they transport the listener to another (in this case, me) out of his humdrum worries…

But the other set are more personal reminiscences, I think, of the poet’s own life, hardly specific to a place (Cavafy lived in London, Alexandria and Istanbul at various points in his life), mostly, but not exclusively, about erotic or romantic encounters. It was one of the second type that finally sent me to sleep. I think it was the one that starts…

To Call up the Shades


One candle is enough. Its gentle light

will be more suitable, will be more gracious…

(This blog respects copyright. To read the rest of the poem, try your local library, or else where on the internet – or, if you really like it, buy it)

From C.P. Cavafy Collected Poems, Transl Edmund Keely and Philip Sherrard, Chatto and Windus, 1998

I can see how that did it, with the image of a single candle lighting a room and its subtle repetition (it rhymes in the original Greek, the translator’s notes tell us), and its talk of visions and Shades and reveries. It’s a fine poem to enjoy when awake too.


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