Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 878
“Ithaka” begins with the poet addressing the reader directly in the second person, as “you,” and offering a piece of advice. The character addressed is not identified. He could be Odysseus, the hero of Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, but the poet is also addressing any reader of the poem.
The poet states that as the traveler sets out on his journey, he must hope that it is a long one, full of adventure and discovery. The destination of the journey is Ithaka. Ithaka is the island off the western coast of Greece to which Odysseus returned after the Trojan war. Odysseus’s journey was a long and difficult one. It was ten years before he was able to rejoin his wife Penelope in Ithaka. However, Ithaka in this poem can also be understood as the destination of any journey, and it can be further understood metaphorically as a journey through life.
In line 4, the poet mentions two of the obstacles that Odysseus encountered in the Odyssey. First are the Laistrygonians, who were half-men and halfgiants, who devoured many of Odysseus’s crew. Second are the Cyclops, who were giants with just one eye, placed in the middle of their foreheads. One of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, took Odysseus and his men prisoner and ate six of them before Odysseus escaped with the remaining six men.
In line 5, the poet mentions another of the forces that obstructed Odysseus’s return. This is Poseidon, who was the Greek god of the sea. He is referred to as angry because in the Odyssey Poseidon was angry that Odysseus had blinded Polyphemus, who was Poseidon’s son.
In the Odyssey, each of these three types of beings are powerful and seek to delay or destroy Odysseus. But, in line 5 of “Ithaka,” the poet bids his reader not to be afraid of them. In lines 6 and 7, he explains why. If the traveler keeps his thoughts “raised high,” he will never encounter any challenge resembling those monsters. The poet is implying that it is always necessary to be optimistic and hopeful.
Lines 8–11 repeat the same idea with one variation. This time, the poet explains that Laistrygonians, Cyclops, or Poseidon will not appear as long as the traveler’s spirit and body are stirred by a “rare excitement.” In another translation of the poem, this phrase is rendered as “fine emotion”; yet another translation uses the phrase “noble emotion.” The idea is that in order to ensure that he is not waylaid by monsters, the traveler must always continue to experience the thrill of being alive.
Lines 12 and 13 add a caveat: such beings will only appear if the traveler summons them up from within his own soul, if he allows them to dwell inside him.
The poet returns to the hope expressed in line 2 of the first stanza, that the traveler’s journey (whether that of Odysseus or any reader of the poem) is a long one. He hopes, in line 2, that there will be many summers when the traveler feels joy on the journey, when he see places he has never seen before.
The poet then imagines various places where a person might stop, such as a Phoenician trading station. Phoenicia was the coastal district of ancient Syria and is now the coast of modern Lebanon. Its ports were centers of trade in the ancient world. The poet states that many beautiful things may be purchased there, including precious stones such as mother of pearl and coral, and every kind of perfume. The poet also hopes the reader may visit Egyptian cities and learn from the scholars who live there. In the ancient world, Egypt was a center of learning, especially its capital city, Alexandria, which was one of the largest cities in the world and contained the largest library.
The first line of this stanza contains another piece of advice. Odysseus, or any traveler on a journey, must always keep Ithaka in mind, because it is his or her final destination. The traveler will certainly arrive there. But, says the poet, do not hurry the journey. It is better if the journey lasts for years, so that the traveler is old by the time he reaches home and also wealthy from all he has accumulated on his travels. Then, he will not expect Ithaka to make him rich.
The poet states that it is enough that Ithaka was the reason for making the journey in the first place. Without it, Odysseus or other voyagers would never have started. When Odysseus finally does arrive, the city has lost its charm for him; he finds less pleasure in being there then what he had hoped for and imagined.
The poet reemphasizes the message of the previous stanza. If the traveler, having arrived home in Ithaka, finds it to be a poor place, it does not mean that Ithaka has been deceptive. The traveler has not been fooled because he will have become wise and full of experience. He will therefore know what is meant by Ithaka, and by all destinations— all Ithakas—that people strive to reach. The implication is that he will have learned that the prize is all in the experience of the journey, not the final destination.
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