Ithaka: a poem reminds us that the journey is more important than the destination
We all want to return home, to Ithaka, to view from the sea that island where we grew up, to see again the woman we love, who’s awaited our return so many years. For this reason, the legendary Greek island – the home of Odysseus, of Penelope and Telemachus – is the perfect metaphor for the purpose in life, one which we never stop pursuing.
Ithakas, then, could be nearly anything. They can represent the processes involved in reaching a goal or in recovering something we’ve lost. They might even symbolize the act of transitioning through life, from beginning to end, and to finally returning to one’s origins. In an illuminating, seemingly simple poem, Greek poet Constantine Cavafy speaks of the importance of enjoying the road to our own Ithaka (wherever that may be), because the journey is much more exquisite than any arrival at a final destination.
The poem Ithaka seems to be spoken to the hero Odysseus, during his return home (the hero’s path we all symbolically travel during life), but in Cavafy’s rich, universal language, he speaks to all of us, too. And here he graciously provides advice which seems simple but which we too often ignore. Immersed in lives of haste, and easy, instantaneous rewards, it’s easy to forget that the path, or any kind of process, is not only that which can teach us the most but that which is also the most enjoyable. Born in Alexandria, Cavafy says that Ithaka “has nothing left to give you now.” That’s why it’s better to arrive, old, having lived life’s adventures and experiences.
The Cyclopes, the Laestrygonians, and the fierceness of the god Poseidon won’t appear along your path if you keep “your thoughts raised high,” Cavafy says. Dangers will only arise if you carry them inside, or if your soul sets them up in front of you. With these words, the poet reminds us that on many occasions, our own demons impede us in the process of achieving what we want (thus the importance of turning those demons into allies).
This slight, dazzling advice in Cavafy’s poem is of enormous ontological implication, and could well be applied to the simplest and most mundane of life’s processes, with surprising, illuminating results. A practice of this nature, as a philosophy of life, could also relate in a profound way to meditation, to the work of keeping our minds in the present.
Nacre, coral, amber, ebony, Egyptian cities where it’s possible to learn from the wise and to thrill at seeing a port for the first time; these are just some of the treasures travel might give us, and it’s crucial to pay attention to them. “Keep Ithaka always in your mind. / Arriving there is what you’re destined for. / But don’t hurry the journey at all.” Thus advises Cavafy. In other words, never forget your goal, but enjoy the journey, because that’s the true secret to our brief transit through the world.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
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.
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.
Translation: Edmund Keeley
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