I came across the poem “Ithaka” by Constantine P. Cavafy, through a remarkable collection of poems called “Poems That Make Grown Men Cry”, edited by Anthony and Ben Holden. “Ithaka” is based on Homer’s account of Odysseus’s journey home, and offers profound insight about life in all its complexity, with both the disappointments and the pleasant recollections that become inescapable. The poem encourages the reader to live for the journey instead of the destination, to ensure a prosperous and fulfilling life. The difficult experiences of your journey mean that you are now more equipped to face the future, “so wise you have become, of such experience, that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.”
When you set out for Ithaka
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – do not fear them:
such as these you will never find
as long as your thought is lofty, as long as a rare
emotion touch your spirit and your body.
The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops,
angry Poseidon – you will not meet them
unless you carry them in your soul,
unless your soul raise them up before you.
Ask that your way be long.
At many a Summer dawn to enter
with what gratitude, what joy –
ports seen for the first time;
to stop at Phoenician trading centres,
and to buy good merchandise,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and sensuous perfumes of every kind,
sensuous perfumes as lavishly as you can;
to visit many Egyptian cities,
to gather stores of knowledge from the learned.
Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.
Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.
Constantine P. Cavafy
“The theme of the poem may be summed up in one phrase: it is better to journey than to arrive. Life should not be wasted in always contemplating the goal of one’s endeavours or in building up hopes and schemes for the future but in enjoying the journey.”
– Daniel Mendelsohn
Life As a Journey
An obsession with the ultimate ambition can distract a person from the true matter of living, which is to take pleasure in each moment that is present. There is also this suggestion that life can be discouraging. The ambitions that people seek, their “Ithakas”, may not grant what they longed for. For that reason, it is better not to make assumptions. The poet admonishes that there is no mine filled with the riches of Solomon: Ithaka may be poor, with nothing to give. He seems to suggest that a person should not have grand standards or seek to gain perfection in life, whether for oneself or for society, even though it is human to have ambitions and beliefs and to strive to achieve.
As Cavafy states in the third stanza, without an “Ithaka”, an aim in mind, there would be no cause to act at all, no cause to commence on the journey of life. The poet has a technique for appreciating the journey that includes the nurturing of a particular practice of mind. The whole person has to be completely absorbed in the life it is living, through the body, mind and soul. A person should not surrender to melancholy, disappointment or the shameful aspects of life, but should keep his or her “thoughts raised high”. Cavafy may also have in mind the meditation of art that guides the mind to the higher levels of the human spirit, instead of permitting it to descend to the depths. An additional necessity for happiness on the journey is what the poet calls “rare excitement”. This is perhaps interpreted as a particular mental outlook to the experiences that life creates. A person should nurture the skill to react to situations and experiences as though they were completely unique and recent, and thus an object of wonder and happiness.
The final stage of the technique for a fulfilling journey is to appreciate the sensual aspects of life, (“as many sensual perfumes as you can”), to value beautiful things (represented by the precious stones), and to nurture one’s intellect. The latter is advised by learning and to “go on learning” from the scholars of Egypt. The manner this is expressed is significant as a person can never state that he or she has learned enough. Learning is a continuous movement with no final boundary in sight. The advice given here may be epitomized as the requirement to use everything that a human being has received to perceive, enjoy, and comprehend the world. The goal is to live in the realities of the present moment, not in the imagined future.
Cavafy establishes all this advice in context by setting it across the background of ‘the Odyssey’, one of the world’s great travel narratives. He shifts the explanation of the Odyssey while propelling a psychological interpretation of some of its events. In Homer’s epic poem, the hero Odysseus constantly yearns for home, he does not take pleasure in his journey, which is full of dangers. Even the sensual pleasures and the proposal of immortality presented to him by Kalypso mean nothing to him. He persists to search for his home in Ithaka for peace, security, and love. However, in “Ithaka”, the opposite is true: it is the journey that is priceless; the destination is huge insignificance.
The first lines of the poem without a doubt display the ironic way Cavafy treats ‘the Odyssey’: “As you set out for Ithaka, hope your road is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery.” This is contrary to what Odysseus was wishing for. He desired a rapid voyage home, not one brimming with adventure. Cavafy also conveys that the monsters Odysseus confronts are all creations of the human mind. However, in “Ithaka”, the dwelling locations of these monsters are not tangible places but conditions of the mind. Provided that man pursues the poet’s instruction for happiness, such personal demons will not arise in his psyche. The human mind has the ability to conceive them and to destroy them.