- by K.P. Kavafis (C.P. Cavafy)
As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.
Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.
In high school my son was asked to contribute a poem that was meaningful to him for a booklet complied by his AP English Literature class. ITHACA was his choice. I recently stumbled across the poem again, thinking how surprised I was that this complex and thoughtful poem was his selection. That at the age of not quite eighteen, he understood something about the nature of journeys and setting goals and the hidden significance of the unexpected. This, on the precipice of personal challenges over the next six years that would change his life, redefine him, and reorient his compass.
Do we not all "hope that the road is long" and full of adventure, full of knowledge? Are we able and willing to set down our fears and refuse to "carry them within" as we set out upon our journeys? I suspect many of us head out in pursuit of our grand desires mostly unaware the journey has no more to give than the beauty of the voyage. Ithaca, as the poet writes, will not make you rich.
I like to think my son had an intuition of the difficult and life-changing pathways ahead for him. That he understood the value of mountains climbed and challenges met, the gift in an unexpected view. Certainly he knew very young that nothing is a given. He picked a star and followed it on through the dark.
Somewhere along the road toward a goal, the journey becomes all. I think of Samuel Taylor Coleridge sailing from England to Malta in 1804 - his ambition to repair his health in a warmer clime, to regain his poetic focus and stoke the powers of creative fire. Coleridge's journey at sea did indeed deepen the keenness of his observations, and served as the catalyst for new poems and imagery. His love of the sea consecrated in his journal, "The Stars that start up, sparkle, dart flames and die away in the Snow of Foam by the vessel's side." Nonetheless the poet sensed, even as he neared his destination, "Malta, dear Malta as far off as ever."
The island failed to fulfill Coleridge's dreams but the voyage was a poetic highlight of his life. As ITHACA reminds us, our lives are gems of boldness, pearls of adventure, "the summer mornings...when — with what pleasure, with what joy — you first put in to harbors new to your eyes." Ithaca is the beautiful voyage - for without her we would never have taken the road.
I like to think my son, now in his mid twenties, gazes long and far down the road. Not measuring the miles but the viewpoints along the way. A poem that first spoke to a boy keeps the watch in a young man's heart.