Friday, September 16, 2005

National Poetry Week: 5

I read this at a friend's wedding a few years ago. It's perfect for such an occasion, being more about the journey than the arrival...

There are a number of translations of this famous Greek poem, but this is my favorite so far.


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 learn-ed.**
Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
but do not in the least hurry the journey.
Better that 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 has not deceived you.
So wise have you become, of such experience,
that already you will have understood what these Ithakas mean.

C.P. Cavafy
from Six Poets of Modern Greece
translated by Edmund Keely & Philip Sherrard.

I shouldn't presume that everyone knows the story of the Odyssey, and if you do, just skip over this bit. In brief, it's Homer's epic ode of the journey of Odysseus, King of Ithaka, returning from the Trojan War. All the other Greek kings met with their own adventures after the great sacking (like Agamemnon, who had killed his daughter on the way out and was killed by his wife on his return), but they were brief journeys. It took Odysseus ten years to get back to Ithaka, and to his faithful wife, Penelope. During his journey he met up with many odd people: Sirens, Nymphs, the Cyclops, Gods, and Goddesses. It's a great read. Penelope, in the meantime, had a lot of pressure to remarry since it was obvious to all and sundry that her husband had perished. She was, however, of the Jedi mindset, having faith that if O had perished, she would have sensed it. She spent her time fighting off and tricking all the young studs who have come wooing, until O does indeed return and slaughters the randy lot of them.

Cavafy has taken this classic tale and used it, in the same way Homer has, as a wonderful tribute to looking at the bright side of life. It could be viewed as a battle to get home, or it could be viewed as a learning experience, which will enrich the times to come. Perfect for weddings, don't you think?

* I spent a lot of time getting my pronounciation of 'Laistrygonians' if not right, then at least smooth so that I didn't stumble over it. I pronounce it thus:
Please correct me if I'm wrong!

** I can't put a acute accent on the e to break up the syllables here because it'll turn into gobbledy-gook on your computer, so I've done it phonetically. It's the poetic device of making one syllable into two for the sake of metre. You know what I mean. But if you write it, just pop the acute back in.

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