In “Ithaka,” Cavafy makes use of the story from the Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614), Homer’s epic tale of Odysseus’s ten-year struggle to return home from the Trojan War. This return is a kind of scaffolding for making a value statement about human life. The island kingdom of Ithaka becomes a symbol of completion and value, and the attempt to return should be the purpose of life. Odysseus is driven by a powerful longing for his home, a longing that ends with his arrival there; but for Cavafy, Ithaka is not a place, but a process, the journey itself, and the journey is one’s life. In brief, the purpose of life cannot simply be wrapped up by its ending; it is in living that one finds value.
The voice in the poem is, perhaps, the poet’s, speaking directly to the reader, even though that “reader” could also be Odysseus. The facts of Odysseus’s journey come into the poem only as symbols of what readers can meet on their lives’ journeys. In a sense, the voice urges readers to be moral, but it is not a preaching voice.
In the second section, the voice essentially tells readers to wish for a long life, but a life which is to be enjoyed for the pleasure of being alive, in seeing that which is new and beautiful, appealing to the senses. The readers also are urged to learn, “learn” being twice repeated in the Greek for emphasis on this part of the process.
Of course, one must always have the end, Ithaka, in mind, for it is “your destiny.” One should not hurry, however, and the end is not the end. Ithaka in itself may be “poor,” but getting there is how, in living one’s life, one will give and receive richness and meaning in that life.
Auden, W. H. Introduction to The Complete Poems of Cavafy. Translated by Rae Dalven. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961.
Cavafy, C. P. The Canon: The Original One Hundred and Fifty-Four Poems. Translated by Stratis Haviaras, edited by Dana Bonstrom. Athens: Hermes, 2004.
Epstein, Joseph. “C. P. Cavafy, a Poet in History.” New Criterion 12, no. 5 (January, 1994): 15.
Keeley, Edmund. Cavafy’s Alexandria. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.
Liddell, Robert. Cavafy: A Critical Biography. London: Gerald Duckworth, 2001.