The quote at the top of my Daily Mail column today comes from an exquisitely simple poem by the Greek poet C.P Cavafy, who died in 1933. Let us have the whole thing here, where there’s plenty of space:
Days to come stand in front of us
like a row of lighted candles—
golden, warm, and vivid candles.
Days gone by fall behind us,
a gloomy line of snuffed-out candles;
the nearest are smoking still,
cold, melted, and bent.
I don’t want to look at them: their shape saddens me,
and it saddens me to remember their original light.
I look ahead at my lighted candles.
I don’t want to turn for fear of seeing, terrified,
how quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.
It took all my willpower not to choose a poem about dogs, since I feel so full of sadness at the loss of my beloved Maltese, Bonnie. Yet this poem is entirely relevant to my feelings – because so many people have advised me to look back at the happy years (nearly 14) I spent with that little companion always at my side. I do just that – and rejoice that Bonnie had such a happy life. (If you want to find out more about my rescue dog and all she did for me, then read my memoir, A Small Dog Saved My Life. My heart and soul are in that book, more than anything else I have written.)
So looking back can bring some consolation. On the other hand, (in the case of this poem) it can spark a solemn (and terrified) awareness that time past can never come again. Time past is time passed, never to be recaptured. Cavafy meditates on the inexorable forward motion of time – as we all must. I can look back at the happy times I spent with my dog, but inevitably the memories bring a sweet sadness too, because that section of my life has ended. As John Galsworthy wrote, ‘Not the least hard thing to bear when they go from us, these quiet friends, is that they carry with them so many years of our own lives.’
Yet, just as the message of my small dog (indeed. of all dogs) was always to run forward with enthusiasm and delight, so Cavafy’s poem is surely an exhortation to look forward towards the light. We must! Not knowing how many lit candles lie ahead makes the poet melancholy (as it may you too), and yet it should also act a reminder that we must seize the time and not waste the precious light that’s left.
While we are on the subject of candles and time, I’ll leave you with a defiant and inspiring quatrain by one of my favourite poets, the great Edna St Vincent Millay – called, ‘FIRST FIG.’
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!
My small dog lit a lovely light in my heart – one that is still burning. It reminds me to stand on my hind legs every single day and yap passionately against the darkness.