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As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, 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, 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 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.

Constantine Cavafy was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. A citizen of Greece, he lived in many places. Cavafy wrote: “I am from Constantinople by descent, but I was born in Alexandria… I left very young, and spent much of my childhood in England…. I have also lived in France. During my adolescence I lived over two years in Constantinople. It has been many years since I last visited Greece.” Cavafy always had a day job; he worked as a journalist, and then in the Egyptian Ministry of Public Works for 30 years. He took an unusual approach to the publication of his poems. He never published a collection. Instead, his work appeared in magazines, or on self-published broadsides which he distributed to his friends. He was a perfectionist, and left only about 150 finished poems, along with hundreds of drafts, abandoned poems, and fragments.  E. M. Forster, who was a friend of Cavafy, described him as "a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe."  T. S. Eliot was another early reader of Cavafy’s work. It was not until after Cavafy’s death in 1933 that the first collection of his work appeared and his work really began to be recognized.
This poem, “Ithaka,” was written in 1911. It is typical of Cavafy in the way it is rooted in ancient Greek history and literature, and quite contemporary at the same time. The poem builds on the familiar story of Odysseus, who had gone to fight in the Trojan War (as described in Homer’s Iliad) and then had many adventures on the way home—the story told in Homer’s Odyssey.
Cavafy’s poem is full of details from the epic. Ithaka is the island that Odysseus is trying to get home to, and the Laistrygonians, Cyclops, and Poseidon are some of the dangers he encounters along the way.
But Cavafy’s poem is not an update of Homer’s epic, nor is it really about Odysseus at all. Cavafy uses the story to reflect on journeys and destinations. We know that the journey is what matters most: “hope your road is a long one.” He lyrically describes the joy of discovery: “May there be many summer mornings when… you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time.” Cavafy reminds us that we human beings are both body and soul, and there are experiences for both on this journey. We can sample the “perfumes” of Phoenicia, and we can “learn and go on learning” from Egyptian scholars. As for the monsters Odysseus encounters—the Laistrygonians, the Cyclops, and “wild Poseidon”—on this journey, the dangers come from within. “you won’t encounter them / Unless you bring them along inside your soul.”
But the destination is important, too. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind.” What is Ithaka for Odysseus? It is not just his destination; it is home, family, responsibility. It’s his own place and purpose. “Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.” Without Ithaka, Odysseus is just a wanderer. Of course, there are problems back in Ithaka. “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.”
Cavafy’s poem is sometimes read at graduations, and you can see why: it’s a wonderful invitation to explore the world and to keep on learning. But there’s more to it. Paradoxically, perhaps, this poem about journeys is also about staying grounded. “Ithaka” speaks of the importance of staying connected with our roots, our home and traditions, which give shape to our journey, no matter how long that journey may be, or how far from home it may take us.
Have a great summer!





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