Theme and Symbolism in Cavafy’s Ithaka
In his poem Ithaca Constantine Cavafy uses the familiar story of The Odyssey as a metaphor for the journey of life. Cavafy wrote his poetry in Greek. Although some of the lyricism and rhyme of the original is probably lost in translation, it is still a powerful piece that speaks to the reader in any language.
The major theme of the poem is to take your time on your journey through life, stopping to obtain wisdom, pleasure and experience. Some people always find the straight and easy way through life, proceeding linearly and avoiding distractions and detours. When they reach the end, what do they have to show for it? Cavafy seems to be saying that the things that really matter in the end are experiences and memories. You can not get many of these on the straight and narrow path. Odysseus’ ten year voyage home from the Trojan war, with its many turnings and adventures, is a metaphor for a fulfilling life.
One unusual feature of the work is that it is written in the second person imperative. It tells the reader, the metaphorical Odysseus, what to do. While this point of view is almost never workable in a narrative work, it is effective in a short lyrical poem like this. Ithaka uses several strong symbols, loosely drawn from the Odyssey. The first stanza, for instance, refers to the Laistrygonians, the Cyclops, and “Angry Poseidon”. These were among the most terrifying of Oddyseus’ enemies. The Laistrygonians and the Cyclops were gigantic cannibals who ate most of his followers. Poseidon was a vengeful god who persecuted him for years. Cavafy chooses these enemies to symbolize conflict, particularly conflict with people or powers that are much bigger and more powerful than the reader. Luckily, the reader need not fear these external conflicts: “…you won’t meet them / unless you carry the in your soul” (11-12). A person without internal strife is less likely to encounter external strife.
Another symbol is the idea of coming into new harbors. The harbors are happy times and places in the life of the reader where pleasure, knowledge and experience are gained. Cavafy mentions two main types, Phoenician trading stations, and Egyptian cities. In the Phoenician stations, one is to buy fine things and sensual perfumes. Cavafy is not telling the reader to amass treasure. The message is to enjoy luxury and beauty when the chance arises. One should appreciate the fine things that come into one’s path for the sake of the experience. The Phoenician trading stations symbolize times in life when one is exposed to art and beauty and culture. The Egyptian cities, on the other hand, symbolize times of knowledge and education. This could be a time of formal education such as going to college. It could just as easily by an informal educational experience. Either way, Cavafy enjoins the reader to visit many of these “Egyptian Cities”. Education is not something that is sought once in life. Rather, should occur in a series of episodes throughout a lifetime.
When he wrote this reference to Egyptian cities, Costantine Cavafy was undoubtedly thinking of Alexandria, where he spent most of his life. Alexandria has always been a great center of learning and a confluence of cultures and ideas. It was the sight of the largest library of the ancient world. It would not, however, have existed at the time the events in the historical Odyssey took place. Cavafy is thus either creating a deliberate anachronism or referring to other older Egyptian cities. The symbolism is still effective either way.
The final, and perhaps most important, symbol in Ithaka is Ithaka itself. Ithaka, Odysseus’ island kingdom, represents both the starting and ending place. Everyone comes from somewhere. There was a time and place that shaped them and made them who they are. As they reached adulthood they left home. Some went far indeed, even as this poem recommends. Ironically, the farther people get from home (physically, temporally, and ideologically) the more they want to return. The great risk, however, is of idealizing your own personal Ithaka. In the penultimate stanza Cavafy warns against expecting too much:
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
The point of life is the journey and the experiences along the way. If you go long enough you will eventually get back to where you began. As natural as this is, this starting and ending point is simply that: a starting and ending point. It is the path in between that makes life worth living.
Cavafy is justifiably referred to as the father of Greek modernist poetry, and Ithaka is widely regarded as one of his finest poems. In it he develops elements of a familiar story, The Odyssey, into powerful symbols to support his theme.