One’s Ithaka

April 29, 2013 § 2 Comments

Today, the 29th of April, marks the 150th anniversary of Constantine Cavafy’s birth. Daniel Mendelsohn, one of Cavafy’s best translators in English, has been celebrating this special occasion  during the entire month of April by tweeting a Cavafy poem every day. Visit his Twitter feed to enjoy the poems, or visit the official C.P.Cavafy website to read almost all of Cavafy’s poems in Greek along with their English translations. You can also learn more there about the life and work of this important Alexandrine Greek poet.

I talk about all of this here not only because Cavafy is one of my favourite poets but because he’s certainly for me the most personal one, the one most linked to my own biography. He’s the fist “proper” poet I ever got to hear and remember. Yes, not ‘to read’ but ‘to hear’. I was in the elementary school and although my mum may have been reciting and singing nursery rhymes to me before then, I honestly don’t remember her doing so. I only remember myself contentedly taking a place next to her in her bed, her opening (with a movement of solemnity) the leather-bound copy of Cavafy’s Selected Poems, and her reciting in her warm voice Ithaka, Walls, or Myris: Alexandria, A.D. 340. I was enchanted by my mother, enchanted by the power a poem had on my mother, enchanted by the possibility a poem gave us to share all these emotions with each other. Later, the same power of poetry would bring me together with many important people in my life.

Mum read the most profound verses twice sometimes: “Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey“, Do you hear that, M.? “And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you“,  “without her you’d not have set upon the road.“, Do you  understand what the poet wants to tell us, M.? I would nod ‘yes’, but sometimes also an extra ‘no’, just for the joy of hearing her interpretations again.

Mum would read repeatedly the same poems for a certain period of time; night after night she would go through her repertoire, changing it only when she felt that we both had got the essence of it deep into our souls. Yes, mum has been a melancholic person and so am I, although we both can be very silly and laugh at jokes that I’d be ashamed to admit here, but still, well, reading Cavafy to a seven-year-old…

Never mind her reasons though, I will always be utterly thankful to her for introducing me to poetry and my reading is dedicated to her.


Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωιά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους·
να σταματήσεις σ’ εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν’ αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ’ έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά·
σε πόλεις Aιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ’ τους σπουδασμένους.Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί είν’ ο προορισμός σου.
Aλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξείδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει·
και γέρος πια ν’ αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στον δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ’ έδωσε τ’ ωραίο ταξείδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δεν σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες η Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν.

(Από τα Ποιήματα 1897-1933, Ίκαρος 1984)

Ithaka  (Translated by Daniel Mendelsohn)

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.



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