Tuesday poem – Ithaka

by C.P. Cavafy

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 the 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 have you become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithakas mean.

This probably sounds rather childish, but ‘Ithaka’ is my favourite poem in the whole world. I loved it when I first read it almost thirty years ago, and I love it more every time I read it, finding new subtleties and sadness, and further layers of truth and irony and resonance. It has become absolutely My Poem, over the years. I’d like to have it read at my funeral, please.
C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933) was the ninth child of rich Constantinople merchants. He was educated in England and Alexandria, but moved back to stay with his grandfather and two brothers in Constantinople when the family business collapsed, and then returned to Alexandria where he lived and worked (as a government clerk) until his death.
Cavafy wrote in modern Greek, which I do not know at all, and so I am forever in debt to his poetic translators. This particular translation has remained my favourite version through the years, and there are several others, the most favoured of which these days being Daniel Mendelsohn’s masterwork, the new translation of all Cavafy’s poems published by Knopf in 2009. I admire Mendelsohn’s work enormously but I don’t love his version of ‘Ithaka’ in the way that I love this one – and Mendelsohn spells it ‘Ithaca’ which is probably more accurate but to me removes a layer of the magic associated with the ‘Ithaka’ spelling. I’ve long since lost track of where this translation originates, but I reproduce it here with awe and gratitude.
Cavafy’s style is unemphatic, almost throwaway. His language has been carefully constructed from everyday speech, as though the smallnesses of human life – and also in this case the larger significances of Odysseus’ journeys – are being inspected and celebrated in a breathtaking journey through the language and mystery of the human heart. Such wisdom.

There are other lovely Cavafy poems, and you may know and love some of them – but this is the one for me.

I hope you’ll look at the Tuesday poem blog, if you’re not already there, and see what other poems people have posted today.

11 Responses to “Tuesday poem – Ithaka”

  1. Elizabeth Welsh Says:

    Belinda, this Cavafy poem is life-changing. I myself have a little store of Tuesday Poems that I draw from, and my favourite Cavafy poem ‘The Afternoon Sun’ is among these poems, but you may have changed my mind. I will carry ‘Have Ithaka always in your mind’ with me.

  2. mary mccallum Says:

    Thank you so much for this, Belinda. My grandmother (Yiayia) was of Cretan stock, born in Athens. I lived there for nine months once and learnt enough Greek to argue with the taxi drivers and buy from the markets. I would love to try Cavafy in the original but I also need to read him more in translation. I haven’t read enough of him and I should and your post encourages me to do so. I am thrilled to know that this is ‘your poem’! Another Tuesday Poet – Helen Heath – is also of Greek stock – Ithaca I think.

  3. Melissa Green Says:

    Dear Belinda, I couldn’t agree with you more. “Ithaka” has always been a stunning poem, a melancholy one, and gives so much poignancy to every human life, shone as it seems to be against the ten-years long voyage home of an already-traumatized Odysseus. It’s a lovely translation, I agree with you about Mendelsohn. Your comments are very prescient and beautifully seen. Thank you for posting this.

  4. admin Says:

    How lovely to wake up this morning to these three generous and inspirational comments – thank you so much for them. I must say, I’d love to hear the poem read in its original Greek, even though I wouldn’t understand the words, but I imagine that the tone would shine through. And come to think of it’s probably possible to find exactly that, somewhere on the web.

  5. Frances Thomas Says:

    I met this poem only recently, read aloud for us by our guide at the theatre in Epidaros- and it’s since become one of the poems I Can’t Do Without. Thanks for posting it, Belinda

  6. admin Says:

    And I can’t believe that I didn’t name it when you asked me last year to name my favourite poems! It lives in your heart and mind, and matures like fine wine on revisits. An astounding piece of art.

  7. Lucille Says:

    I found this for you:
    but I’m going to go on discovering it in English because I didn’t know it.

  8. admin Says:

    What an amazingly kind present – thank you so much for it.

  9. AJ Says:

    It feels rather like an admonition to the very young – but in the form of adventure. What an amazing poem – thanks for posting it.

  10. Lucille Says:

    I think the ‘k’ looks more authentic than ‘c’ because of the Greek Ιθάκη.

  11. admin Says:

    Yes, I agree, which is presumably why that poetic translator used it. And I think it somehow adds a mystery or a magic or maybe both: it’s like a jolt to the eye when you read it. Like a gear change.

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