Musings of a London medical student
Bint Battuta in the making
This is one of my favourite poems, Ithaka, by the renowned Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy, who was born and lived in the Mediterranean Egyptian city of Alexandria. Written in 1894, the poem seems to be narrated by a well-travelled individual, who is addressing Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, or an imaginary modern traveller or reader. It strikes a special cord with me as I am afflicted with a severe case of wanderlust, fancying myself as a modern day, female version of Ibn Battuta, and also because I studied and immensely enjoyed Homer’s Odyssey during my school days (knew it off by heart, in Ancient Greek!).
In the poem, the narrator informs the reader that the end destination, Ithaka, the island goal of Odysseus’s own years of wandering and travels, is not as important as the actual journey you embark on to reach your destination. He encourages the reader to enjoy and savour the journey, living and tasting every moment fully, using all the senses and intellect we have at hand, as the goal itself is more than likely to be disappointing. The journey Odysseus embarks on is a metaphor for life, and through this poem and the voice of the narrator, Cavafy encourages the reader to relish our journey through life instead of placing all our focus and hopes on one end goal, as it is the journey of our lives which is likely to be more enriching and valuable than the destination we desperately sought to arrive at.
Ithaka is one of Cavafy’s best known poems, and is considered to express his outlook on life. I had the pleasure of visiting his home in Alexandria a few years ago, which has now been converted into a museum open to the public and is managed and maintained by the Greek Embassy. The house has been kept in the state it was in while Cavafy inhabited it, and you can see plenty of his belongings and also handwritten versions of his poems adorning the walls. The museum is in an inconspicuous old building on Rue Lespius, downtown in Old Alexandria. I would highly recommend a visit.
Meanwhile, here is Ithaka:
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and 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 and 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 the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen 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 gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not 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 will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
(via titadinio) I love this quote…