In this past Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes about recent attempts to locate Odysseus’s Ithaka and cites a theory that Homer was actually referring to the island of Paliki. (The actual Ithaka doesn’t fit the description in the poem.) This gives me an excuse to share C. P. Cavafy’s poem about Ithaka, my favorite post-Homeric poem about Odysseus.
Odysseus’s journey is not about reaching Ithaka, Cavafy tells us. It is about the adventure and the discovery along the way. This is a sentiment that Tennyson’s Ulysses, subject of a post last week, would agree with. He calls journeying “an arch wherethrough/Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades/For ever and for ever when I move.”
Ask yourself how you have been Odysseus. What hostile islanders, one-eyed foes, and angry sea gods have you met along your way? What harbors have you entered? What rare excitement has stirred your spirit and your body?
By C. P. Cavafy
Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
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.
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 your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing 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 learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t 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’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
“Paliki,” I have to say, just doesn’t have the same ring as “Ithaka.” Cavafy would point out, however, that the actual place doesn’t matter. That’s not what these Ithakas mean.
Note on the artist:The artist’s painting can be found at fineartamerica.com/featured/path-to-kastro-beach-yvonne-ayoub.html.