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Ithaka -- Constantine Cavafy

Guest poem sent in by Vikram Doctor
(Poem #217) Ithaka
  As you set out for Ithaka
  hope the journey is a long one,
  full of adventure, full of discovery.
  Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
  angry Poseidon - don't be afraid of them:
  you'll never find things like that on your way
  as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
  as long as a rare excitement
  stirs your spirit and your body.
  Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
  wild Poseidon - you won't encounter them
  unless you bring them along inside your soul,
  unless your soul sets them up in front of you.

  Hope the voyage is a long one.
  may there be many a summer morning when,
  with what pleasure, what joy,
  you come into harbours seen for the first time;
  may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
  to buy fine things,
  mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
  sensual perfume of every kind -
  as many sensual perfumes as you can;
  and may you visit many Egyptian cities
  to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

  Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
  Arriving there is what you are destined for.
  But do not hurry the journey at all.
  Better if it lasts for years,
  so you are old by the time you reach the island,
  wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
  not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

  Ithaka gave you the marvellous journey.
  without her you would not have set out.
  She has nothing left to give you now.

  And if you find her poor, Ithaka won't have fooled you.
  Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
  you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
-- Constantine Cavafy
      (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Some years back when I was despairing about the cost of New Year Cards,
though still wanting to send them out as a slightly shame faced, but still
useful once-in-a-year way of keeping in touch with people, I decided to
print a poem I liked on good hand made paper and send it out instead. I was
a bit apprehensive, since it seemed rather a precious idea, but I found that
people really liked it, and now say they look forward to it. It confirms my
feeling that most people have a latent ability to love poetry, which is
suppressed and scared into hiding by our appalling educational system.

I think I sent out Ithaka the third or fourth year I did it and after that I
noticed something. This was one poem people seemed to keep. I've come across
my New Year card pinned onto several people's softboards, and people have
asked me for copies. Ithaka automatically strikes a chord with people, which
is hardly surprising since its such a simple poem, and what it says is
something most of us know instinctively to be true. I like the images as
well - the shop sailing into a harbour on a summer morning, and the fabulous
bazaars and souks. And the last line leaves you with just enough balance
between clarity and ambiguity to stop the poem falling flat. This is one of
the great ones.

about Cavafy.

Cavafy is one of the greats too. I don't have much biographical matter with
me at the moment, but then in terms of major events there really isn't much.
He was born into the Greek community in Alexandria in 1863, when Alexandria
was still quite a Greek city. He lived there all his life, in moderate
obscurity. I think he was reasonably well off, so didn't have to do much
work. Alexandria in his time was in its last gasp of greatness, a
cosmopolitan, lively, with a large expat community, Westernised, yet
mysteriously 'Eastern' as well - if one is to take Lawrence Durrell's
Alexandria Quartet, which I'm sure we all read as impressionable teenagers,
as a guide.

Cavafy must have fit very well into this hothouse atmosphere. His poems talk
both about the city's glorious past in the time of Alexander and the
Ptolemies. And they talk about its sensuous present in perhaps the most
homoerotic poetry of this century (which has, of course, lead to him being
labeled as the great gay poet of this century. But luckily, I think he
transcends the annoying limitations of such a label - Cavafy is great on any
terms, gay or otherwise.

There is a deliberately antique feel, I think, to the poems - possibly
because he wrote in a rather archaic and formal version of Greek. This comes
through in translation - there is a sort of formal, faintly mannered quality
to them, which adds, rather than detracts from their quality. He died in

I'd just like to add that I visited Alexandria last year, obviously in
homage to Cavafy, but sadly the Alexandria he writes about has mostly
vanished. There are few Greeks left in Alexandria today - one cafe where you
get Egyptian food with Greek names, the sea front cafes, and Cavafy's house,
which is maintained by the Greek government. I dragged my boyfriend through
the back roads to find it, though unfortunately just got there after it
closed. Alexandria is a nice place today - a pleasant provincial town, with
a lovely location spread across a bay and a strong sea breeze blowing and
nice laid back people. But of Cavafy's sensual city, and the world of the
Alexandria Quartet there is nothing left beyond what's written.

Vikram Doctor

65 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Ruth A Pierce said...

Thank you for publishing Ithaka on the web. During the past
20 years, I have tried to find this poem. I had typed a
copy from my college days when a student at Holy Cross.
However, I had not written down the source or author. I was
pleasantly surprised to find it, when I did a web search. I
am giving it to our au pair in a notebook of keepsakes as
she leaves after a year with our family.

I have kept Ithaka as a reminder to myself, especially when
I have taken a road less traveled - it is the journey, not
the destination that is important.

Thank you again,

Ruth Pierce
Santa Cruz, California

shaul said...

At last
I’ve been searching for this poem for about 10 years now.
I got to read only little segment of it, translated to Hebrew in a local
Israeli magazine, and I’ve been looking for it OLE_LINK1ever since.
Thank you for publishing it.

Shaul Someh

P. Srikant said...

This poem will always be very special to IIM
Calcuttans - Professor Leena Chatterjee discussed it
in Management of Self ..

Anonymous said...

This poem was read today at the Commemoration celebrating the life of Sir Kenneth Dover, one of the world's greatest Greek scholars, who sadly passed away recently. It was the perfect choice.

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