What's the shift in C. P. Cavafy's "Ithaka"?

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C. P. Cavafy’s Ithaka (or Ithaca, 1911) is a philosophical and didactic poem on the Homeric theme of homecoming. The background of this poem is Odysseus’s return to his native Ithaka after many years of adventures, wanderings, losses, and homelessness.

In Cavafy’s poem, Ithaka becomes a symbol of home in a spiritual sense. Here, the poet talks about this dear island as the goal of his addressee’s life, the final destination of all the earthly journeys. It is a place of true belonging, an abode of all human hopes and dreams.

Addressing his reader, the poet asks him to “pray that the road be long, full of adventures, full of knowledge.” (1, p. 37) He then assures him that if he keeps Ithaka, his lofty dream, always in his memory, he will not be dismayed by any dangers on his way (Laestrygonians and the Cyc1opes, and even the raging god Poseidon himself).

The decisive shift in the poem occurs when the hero finally arrives at his destination:

. . . once you're old, cast anchor on the isle,
rich with all you've gained along the way,
expecting not that Ithaca will give you wealth.
Ithaca gave you the wondrous voyage:
without her you'd never have set out.
But she has nothing to give you any more. (1, p. 39)

Something which has sustained the traveler all his life, filled him with the desire to know, and emboldened him in his pursuits may eventually turn out poor and lowly.

The poet encourages his reader not to expect any more wealth from his dream, because it has given him everything it had. Then, seasoned and worldly-wise as he is, he will have known the true meaning of “Ithakas,” the things which give life direction and a sense of purpose. He who has grasped this truth will not expect any other gifts from his own “Ithaka.”

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