The City by C. P. Cavafy explores the notion that you cannot simply run away from your problems, you must face them head-on wherever you are in the world. Moving somewhere else may escape the city, but it will not change the mindset that puts you in that situation. Cavafy suggests that to truly change things and be happy, you must change your own outlook on life. Change comes from within, not from moving locations.
The City by C. P. Cavafy begins by focusing on the speech of ‘You’, Cavafy directly quoting from the person he is talking to. This person, although unknown, could be Cavafy talking directly to himself, trying to snap out of the rhetoric that tell him to simply run form his problems. The first stanza of the poem sets out what is going on, with the quoted speaker deciding that his mind has gone soft living in the city he does, seeking escape. The speaker suggests that it is not their fault that their years have been wasted, putting the blame onto the city that they live within.
The second stanza of the poem replies to the speaker of the first, undoing this ridiculous notion. Cavafy suggests that it is not the city that has lead to this ‘waste’ of life, but rather the speaker themselves having wasted their time. Changing the city will not change the mindset of this person, with Cavafy suggesting that they must instead alter their outlook on life for anything to change. Again, change comes from within, it is not something you can force through a radical change of locations.
You can read the full poem here.
Cavafy’s The City is written over two stanzas, both measuring 8 lines. The 16 line poem is framed as a conversation, the first stanza being the speech of one person, and the second being Cavafy’s own opinion. This two stanza narrative, therefore, reflects the speech structure of the poem, the two stanzas conversing with one another. Two here is representative of the characters of the poem, each stanza housing the thoughts and ideas of one of the characters. There is no rhyme scheme within the poem, perhaps pointing to the failed logic of the first speaker.
One technique that Cavafy uses in writing The City is employing determiners that lack specificity. The speaker within the first stanza states that they will do ‘whatever’ and go to ‘another city’. Both of these examples lack a specific location or action, the uncertainty of the speaker revealing how they have not truly thought out their plan of escape, and are rather just fleeing from their problems. The lack of specificity leads Cavafy to be able to pick apart the speaker’s argument, knowing that they are not confident with their own idea of escape.
Another technique that Cavafy uses when writing The City is asyndeton. Within the first stanza, the speaker states that they have ‘spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them’, with Cavafy using an asyndetic list. In doing this, Cavafy gives the illusion that this is an endless list, the speaker rambling on about how terrible this city has made their life. The lack of a final connective, for example ‘and’, suggests that this list has not yet finished, the insinuation being that the speaker could go on moaning about their life forever.
The City Analysis
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,find another city better than this one.Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrongand my heart lies buried like something dead.How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?Wherever I turn, wherever I look,I see the black ruins of my life, here,where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
Cavafy uses a direct address within the first line of the sentence, ‘You said’ instantly framing the dialogue of the first stanza as coming from this unspecified ‘you’. The ‘you’ of the poem could be taken as a representation of the everyman, with Cavafy suggesting this is a mental affliction that impacts many people. At the same time, Cavafy could also be talking directly to himself, the revelation of the internal thoughts of the speaker perhaps suggesting that they are comfortable with each other, suggesting that it is Cavafy talking directly to himself.
The certainty of the speaker is insinuated through the use of tense, ‘I’ll’ being framed through the future tense. The speaker is certain that they will go eventually, having persuaded themselves of this fact. The double repetition of ‘go’ affirms this thought, the speaker instantly characterized as caring only for change and moving onwards.
The lack of specificity within ‘another city’, as I stated above in Poetic Techniques, signals that the speaker doesn’t actually know where they are going. Although this could simply be understood as affirming the fact that they are willing to go anywhere, as long as they escape ‘this city’, this phrase could also suggest they have actually not done any planning, simply speaking out of anger.
The speaker focuses on the depressing reality of their life, ‘heart lies buried’ and ‘mind moulder’ presenting a sad depiction. Yet, the lack of specificity again signals that the speaker can’t actually pinpoint anything wrong with the city. This suggests that the problem is the speaker themselves, the city actually had nothing to do with their unhappiness.
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.This city will always pursue you.You’ll walk the same streets, grow oldin the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,you’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.
The second stanza directly responds to the concerns of the first, with Cavafy stating that ‘This city will always pursue you’. This metaphor states that the problems that the speaker associates with ‘this city’ will follow them to their next location, these problems actually being issues with the speaker themselves. There is no point blindly ‘hop[ing] for somewhere else’, Cavafy suggesting that the speaker must take accountability for their own actions.
The final two lines of Cavafy’s The City summarise his response to the speaker, stating that now ‘you’ve wasted your life here… ‘you’ve destroyed it everywhere’. This seems bitterly depressing, yet it actually just Cavafy forcing the speaker to take accountability for his actions. If ‘you’ continue on with your negative thoughts of your own life, they will follow and plague you wherever you go. Changing your city does not change the fact that you are unhappy. You must first realize why you are unhappy, seeking personal growth from within, then maybe you can think about changing your ‘city’.