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GREECE: The journey to Ithaca: Cavafys readings of the human soul

by A. Makrinos
Where Homer decided to halt and put a full stop, it is difficult
and dangerous for anyone else to wish to continue. But it is in the
difficult and dangerous tasks that great craftsmen are successful.
C. P. Cavafy on Ithaca.
Constantine Petrou Cavafy was born into a rich Greek family on 29
April 18! in Ale"an#ria$ a city with hi%h numbers of Greek population
at the time. Cavafy&s parents ori%inate# from Constantinople 'mo#ern
(stanbul) an# move# to Ale"an#ria in 18**. Cavafy was the ninth an#
last chil#. (n 18+,$ his father #ie# an# two years later$ Cavafy move#
to%ether with his family to -n%lan# where he was e#ucate# an# learnt
e"cellent -n%lish. After five years in .iverpool an# .on#on$ in 18+8 he
returne# to Ale"an#ria an# finishe# his stu#ies in the famous Greek
colle%e /0ermes1. (n 1882$ because of the e"plosive political con#ition
in -%ypt$ Cavafy&s family move# to Constantinople. 0owever$ three
years later they returne# permanently to Ale"an#ria.
2he poet live# all his life in Ale"an#ria apart from short trips in 189+ to Paris an# .on#on an# four visits to
Greece '19,1$ 19,!$ 19,*$ 19!2). (n 1892 because of financial problems Cavafy was force# to take a 3ob in
the -%yptian Government&s (rri%ation 4ffice where he was employe# for more than !, years.
0is life in Ale"an#ria was monotonous an# lonely. (nitially he staye# with one of his brothers but later on he
live# alone. (n the last years of his life he en3oye# the appreciation of his Ale"an#rian frien#s but overall he
preferre# loneliness an# isolation. 0e never stu#ie# in a university but his personal stu#ies 'mainly of
0istory) enable# him to ac5uire #eep knowle#%e of 6rench an# -n%lish literature. 0e spoke -n%lish$ 6rench
an# (talian. 0is ac5uaintance with the cosmopolitan centres of his time '.on#on$ Constantinople$
Ale"an#ria) e5uippe# him with si%nificant life e"perience. (n the summer of 19!2$ he was #ia%nose# with
laryn" cancer an# he then visite# Athens in or#er to be treate#7 althou%h he staye# in Greece for four months$
his con#ition worsene# an# finally he #ie# in a hospital of Ale"an#ria on his birth#ay$ 29 April 19!!.
Cavafy was an eccentric$ stran%e an# #ifficult character. 2hrou%hout his life he remaine# eclectic an# ascetic
as he stru%%le# to reconcile with his sensuous eroticism an# his homose"uality. 0e fre5uently felt tormente#
by the %uilt of a conservative an# hostile society which was incapable to accept his eroticism an# a Christian
reli%ious back%roun# which was not compatible with his passions. .oneliness an# isolation were the main
features of his every#ay life an# they are transforme# into melancholic pessimism an# sometimes
#esperation in his poetry. Cavafy felt that he ha# to preserve his humanity by resistin% whatever causes the
moral #ecline of the human bein% an# by preservin% his heroic #i%nity a%ainst failure an# #eath.
0e is often characterise# as the /poet of the ol# a%e1 because he has pro#uce# his masterpieces an# ac5uire#
his #istinct poetic features after he has reache# the a%e of maturity. 0e was not born a poet$ he became one.
0e mana%e# to fin# his poetic voice after 1911 an# he printe# his poems in a few copies which he offere#
only a few frien#s without ever publishin% them in a collection. 2he complete works of Cavafy '1*8 poems
source9
http9::uploa#.wikime#ia.or%:wikipe#ia:
commons:e:ec:Cavafy19,,;portrait.3p%$ P<$
=!1.+.2,11>
Greek stamp with Cavafy '198!)
source9 http9::cavafis.compupress.%r:
cavafy*8.htm$ =!1.+.2,11>
1
in total) were publishe# for the first time in 19!* un#er the title Poems7 later on an e#ition of his repu#iate#$
hi##en an# unfinishe# poems has also been prepare#. Cavafy is a #ramatic poet who summarises in his 28,
poems the an"iety of the human soul when face# with the %reatest obstacles of life9 loneliness$ isolation$
sorrow$ #espair$ #an%er$ corruption$ #estruction of love$ vanity$ ol# a%e an# #eath. 0is poetry is centre# on
the human bein%. 0is prota%onists #o not blee# an# are not crashe# by the #ifficulties but preserve their
#i%nity an# bravery an# face failure with coura%e.
?hilst pro#ucin% poetry$ Cavafy wrote a lot but publishe# little. Althou%h he is influence# by romanticism
an# symbolism 'especially in his early poems)$ his writin% is ori%inal an# possesses classical 5uality. 0is
verse is free$ iambic without rhymin%7 his lan%ua%e is the #emotic Greek of the people of Ale"an#ria with
collo5uialisms. 0is style is prose$ with clarity of e"pression an# precision an# without complicate#
#ecorative elements 'a#3ectives or fi%ures of speech). 4ther features of his poetry are his irony$ his #i#actic
an# refle"ive tone$ the buil#in% of #ramatic atmosphere$ the use of symbols an# the theatricality of his
settin%s. Most of his themes are taken from the Greek historical past 'especially from the 0ellenistic an#
@oman perio#s but also from Ancient Greece an# AyBantium) an# the real worl# 'a part of these e"periences
ori%inate from his homose"uality). 0is prota%onists are either real or fictional an# the unknown #etails of
their lives stimulate Cavafy&s poetic ima%ination.
0is inspiration is tri%%ere# by the worl# of memories7 Cavafy usually takes from the /#rawers1 of his min#
an ima%e or a set of memories an# transforms them into a poetic i#ea. 0e has #ivi#e# his poems into
historical$ alle%orical 'philosophical) an# erotic but this cate%orisation is conventional7 most of the poems
belon% to several of those cate%ories.
Cavafy&s work was initially receive# in Greece with scepticism. 2here have been many reactions an# stron%
criticism by establishe# intellectuals such as Psycharis
1
or Palamas
2
because his poetry oppose# the
conventional poetic rules in Athens at the time an# the movement of #emoticism.
!
Cavafy became known in
Greece because of Gr. Cenopoulos
8
who praise# him in an article in the ma%aBine Panathinaia. Dince then$
mo#ern Greek poets$ musicians an# other artists have been influence# by Cavafy&s poetry an# refer to him as
their teacher. 0e is consi#ere# to be one of the most important Mo#ern Greek poets with international
reco%nition an# his work has been translate# in more than 2,, lan%ua%es all over the worl#.
Ithaca was written in 1911 an# was publishe# in the Ale"an#rian ma%aBine Grammata. 2he first version of
the poem was written in 1898 an# was entitle# The Second dyssey. (t belon%s to the cate%ory of
mytholo%ical;#i#actic poems an# Cavafy #raws inspiration from 0omer&s dyssey$ Petronius& !"hortatio ad
#lissem$ <ante&s $i%ine &omedy an# 2ennyson&s #lysses. 2he central i#ea of the poem is that people settin%
out for a purpose in their life ac5uire knowle#%e an# e"perience which are superior to this cause.
1
*

1
(1911)

2
k,
kp po,
o p,
3
o 6.
4
To Apu k o kAm,
umo Ho6 o,
o po ou o ou c
p,
q k
5
ou Aq, ckAk
uki
6

7
k 6
8
ou
1. , : of uncertan etymoogy.
Perhaps t orgnates from the
Phoencan word "Utca" (colony);
another vew suggests t s reated to a
nckname of Prometheus. A thrd vew
reates the frst component of the
word (-) to the Phoencan word for
the "sand" whst the second part s
wthout expanaton;
2. , (gen. -ou): gong
somewhere, the route to a certan
destnaton; 3. , : a
sudden change of fortune (ancent
Greek); adventure (modern Greek).
The poet s aware of both meanngs; 4.
, , (gen. -m): (from the
verb 6km) knowedge, wsdom;
1
loannis Psycharis (1854-1929) was a phoogst of Greek orgn, author and promoter of Demotc
Greek. Hs most we-known work s My Journey (1888) whch estabshed hm as the mentor of the
Demotc sde n the Greek anguage queston.
2
Kostis Palamas (1859-1943) was the Greek poet who composed the Oympc Hymn. He was a centra
fgure of the Greek terary generaton of the 1880s and one of the co-founders of the so-caed New
Athenan Schoo.
!
Demoticism: a ngustc movement whch favoured the use of Demotc Greek n a eves of wrtten and
ora speech and ts adaptaton as the offca anguage of the Greek state.
8
Gregorios Xenopoulos (1867-1951) was a Greek novest, |ournast and author of theatrca pays. He
was the founder and edtor of the Nea Estia magazne whch s st pubshed and he became a member of
the Academy of Athens n 1931.
1,
1*
2,
2*
!,
!*
i.
To Apu k o kAm,
po
9
Ho6 c uq,
c o kou c uq
10
ou,
q uq ou c o q cp ou.
N
11
kp po.
HoAA kAokp pm l
o c pi, c p
i c A
12
pmomou
13
q cop
14
4okk,
k c kAc p
15
okq,
k kopAA, kpp k
cou,
16
k qok
17
upmk k Aoq,
o op o qok upmk
c A ukc oAAc ,

18
k o
ouou.
H o
19
ou k.
T o
20
ck l poop ou.
AA
21
Aou.
AAip p oAA pk
k po
22
p i,
Aoo
23
c kp po,
pook6 Ao c 6 q
k.
k cm po .
mp
24
c po,
AA c c c 6 .
mk
25
p, q k c c
A.
o
26
o c, c p,
kA q k
27

iou.
28
5. q, , (gen. -m): (from the
verb ko) percepton by the
senses, consderaton, refexon,
thought;

6. u, , (gen. -
m): (from the verb ukm)
emoton;

7. , (gen. -o):
sprt; 8. , (gen. -o): body;
9. o,-, -o: wd;
10. qugq, , (gen. -): the sou of a
man; n Homer, ony a departed sou,
sprt, ghost whch st retaned the
shape of ts vng owner;11. go:
to pray;
12. Aq, (gen. -o): a harbour;
13. oo, -, -o:
partcpe from p6 (frst of a, n
the frst pace) and mo (from
the verb pm, to see); 14.
too, (gen. -ou): a tradng
pace;
15. (gen. -): a trade,
ware;
16. to, (gen. -ou): very hard
back wood;
17. o,-, -o: sensuous,
deghtfu, peasant (from the word
qoq, q: peasure, en|oyment,
peasure);
18.

- from the verb
m, to earn;
19. o, (gen. -o): mnd;
20. qo, : the arrva (from
the verb m: to come before, to
reach);
21. : to force, to constran, to
carry by force (ancent Greek), to rush
(modern Greek);
22. o , (gen. -ou): an od man
(from the ancent Greek pm,
(gen. -oo); 23. Aoo, -, -o:
rch, weathy (from the noun Aoo,
); see aso next ne;
24. g, (preposton): wthout.
!.

g, -q, -: poor (from
m, -q, -);
26. oq, -q, -: wse;
27. : avafy starts wth the
artce n snguar nomnatve (q) and
contnues wth the noun n pura
nomnatve (k) n order to show
that there s not ony one purpose n
the peopes mnds but many.
28. : to sgnfy, to mean;
Comments:
1;! Z . : 2hese verses have a central position in the poem. (thaca symbolises our
personal 3ourney of life. 2he poet uses the 2
n#
person sin%ular to %ive a#vice an# make his poem #i#actic.
.ine ! is #irectly linke# to the 0omeric story of the return of 4#ysseus to (thaca after the 2ro3an ?ar. 2his
return was full of ad%entures, full of knowledge. ompare these nes wth the foowng passage
from the Odyssey:
Homer, the Odyssey 1.1;*
p o c,
1
o oApoo,
2
A
oAA
1
.
t: poetc form of cm, to te, to descrbe, to reate.
2. oAoo, -, -o: much-traveed, wanderng, turnng
many ways, versate, ngenous ( from oA, pm); 3.
Ao: to wander, to go astray; A s epc passve
A,
3
c Tpoi p oAipo
4
cp
5
oAA6 p6m
6
k o cm,
7
oAA c
8

9
A
10
k
u,
11
po
12
u k o
13
ipm.
14
aorst wthout augment; 4. oAo, (gen. -ou): a cty;
dmnutve of A, but used ke A; 5. : to wage,
to ravage, to sack, to destroy; 6. u, (gen. -o): a cty,
town.
7. : to know; cm s 3rd person snguar,
ndcatve, actve, second aorst; 8. o, (gen. -ou): the
sea, esp. the open sea, the hgh sea; 9. g: to suffer or to
be affected by anythng whether good or bad s second
aorst wthout augment; 1". Ao, : pan whether of body
or mnd, sorrow, gref, dstress; 11. u, (gen. -ou): the
sou, the fe, breath, heart (from the verb m); 1. u:
to receve for onesef, gan, earn, carry off as a prze; defect.
Dep. used ony n present and mperfect, engthened form of
po; 1#. o, (gen. -ou): a return home or
homeward, trave, |ourney (from the verb o); 1$.
to, (gen. -ou): epc and onc for po, (), a
companon, comrade or companon n arms.
These frst verses of Ithaca stmuate our magnaton and urge the reader to vsuase
the Homerc word of the past and our own word of the future.
8;* Tou Au. Ho: in the dyssey the .aestry%onians an# the Cyclops
Polyphemus are the mythical monsters which fi%ht 4#ysseus an# his companions an# obstruct their return to
(thaca. Polyphemus is blin#e# by 4#ysseus an# asks for reven%e from his father$ Posei#on the %o# of the sea.
Posei#on employs ba# weather an# rou%h sea to #estroy 4#ysseus& hope of return. (n Ithaca the
.aestry%onians$ the Cyclopes an# an%ry Posei#on lose their 0omeric meanin% an# are transforme# into
universal symbols. 2hey represent the obstacles that we face in our lives an# that prevent us from achievin%
our %oals. Eote that these symbols are repeate# in lines 9;1,.
1! N g. o: @epetition of line 2. ?ith this repetition Cavafy reverses the 0omeric
myth. (n 0omer$ 4#ysseus praye# for a fast return to (thaca whilst Cavafy&s a#vises us to pray for a lon% trip
which will offer knowle#%e an# e"perience. 6or Cavafy&s 4#ysseus it is the 3ourney that counts$ so the poet
wishes that the 3ourney is full of a#ventures. 0owever$ the 0omeric hero wishes to see even the smoke from
(thaca an# then to #ie. 4#ysseus in 0omer faces material obstacles$ Cavafy&s hero faces his own fears.
0omer$ the dyssey 1.**;*99
o
1
upo
2
kpk,
3
c Ako
4
k uAio
5
Ao
A,
6
m k cA
7
p
u,
o
8
k k opko
9
oq
i, ip
10
. o, -o -o: wretched, unhappy,
unfortunate; 2. oo: to bewa, mourn for,
ament; 3. : to hod back, detan; 4.
A, -, -o: soft, gente, md; 5. iAo, -o
-o: fatterng, wnnng, wy (see aso Ao); 6.
A: to charm, enchant, spe-bnd; 7. tA:
to make to forget; 8. io: to send, send away, et
go, dsmss (pres. part. passve of ); 9.
o: to sprng or eap off from, rse from; 1".
i: to ong for, yearn for or after, desre.
1: A oou: the poet wants to un#erline the 3oy an# beauty of the first time we
e"perience somethin% in life.
1+ ' to 4o: the Phoenicians have #evelope# a maritime$ tra#in% culture that sprea#
across the Me#iterranean #urin% the perio# 1**,;!,, AC. Cavafy uses them as the symbol of the sensuous
pleasures$ the pleasures of the bo#y.
18;21 t At.o u: the poet tries to stimulate our senses with the
/precious stones1 an# the /he#onistic perfumes1 that we shoul# e"perience in life7 these verses are an
invitation to us an# to himself to taste the life of senses as intensely as possible.
22;2! t A Aiut. ouou: Ancient -%ypt is the symbol of knowle#%e
an# learnin%7 Cavafy&s belove# city was famous in anti5uity for its .ibrary which %athere# an immense
number of books in combination to renowne# researchers$ who stu#ie#$ #iscusse# an# commente# on the
ancient authors 'like Cavafy). 2he repetition of the wor# F GHIJKL 'to learn) un#erlines the si%nificance of
knowle#%e. -%ypt symbolises the worl# of the min#.
28;2* H.oo ou: 2hese verses a#vise us not to for%et our personal (thaca$ our
#estination. Many times people for%et their tar%et in life an# Cavafy a#vises us that we must always keep our
min# the reason of our trip. (t is a%ain un#erline# that it is better if the 3ourney is lon% because of the
e"perience %aine# alon% the way.
!,;!1 q oo .: (thaca has nothin% to offer us anymore7 the purpose of our life
seems empty after we have achieve# it. 2here is certain pessimism in this messa%e which #oes not however
reach the point of surren#er. 2he true value of (thaca was the /won#rous voya%e1. 6or 4#ysseus it is the
purpose '(thaca) that #efines the si%nificance of his bein% but for the Cavafean hero it is the 3ourney an# the
e"perience an# knowle#%e ac5uire# that make our life worth livin%.
! q. ou: the implication is that (thacas are the tar%ets$ the ambitions an# the #reams we
have in life.
%uestions and Tas&s:
1. @ea# the passa%e from the dyssey 1.1;* an# compare it with the first lines of Ithaca. ?hat are the
similarities an# the #ifference of the 0omeric hero 4#ysseus with the Cavafean hero 'the rea#er)M
2. Compare line 1 to lines 2!;28 an# analyBe their meanin%.
!. <o you think that Cavafy&s messa%e in Ithaca is optimistic or pessimistic an# whyM
8. ?hat is the role of knowle#%e in human life accor#in% to the poetM
*. -"plain why the poet uses the article in sin%ular with the plural IHNJL in the last line of the poem.
. /Cavafy a#vises the rea#er throu%h his symbols1. <iscuss.
'our(es:
; 2he e#ition use# here is9 C. P. Cavafy 2he Collecte# Poems$ 4"for# ?orl#&s Classics$ 4"for# 2,,8.
; 2he official website of the Cavafy archive with up#ate biblio%raphies$ photos$ manuscripts$ letters$
notes$ etc. in Greek9 http9::www.cavafy.%r an# in -n%lish http9::www.cavafy.com
; Aiblio%raphy an# <isco%raphy on Cavafy9 http9::cavafis.compupress.%r:public.htm
; (nformation about Giannis Dmara%#is& film Cavafy'199)9 http9::www.im#b.com:title:tt,11*889:
; 2he Oavafis pro3ect9 http9::www.kavafis.eu:

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