C. P. Cavafy wrote the poem, ‘Ithaka’ emphasizing the role of Ithaca in Odysseus’ life. This piece alludes to the Greek epic poem by Homer, Odyssey, and the return journey of the eponymous character to his home island. It does not portray the real events depicted in the epic. The focus is on the journey and its influence on the epic hero. Like a wise counselor, the poetic persona guides the hero to make this journey as enlightening as he can. He should enjoy the journey, rather than thinking much about Ithaca.
In this poem, the speaker guides the epic hero Odysseus while he sets out for his homeland. Ithaca, being his destination, will always be there. But, the journey that he takes to return there, is a lifetime event. So, he must focus on the means and divert his attention from the end as he is on the voyage to Ithaca. The thoughts revolving around his homeland should always be cherished. But, to increase his knowledge and wisdom, he must keep his senses alert. To know beyond the limits and increase the treasure of mind, Odysseus has to make the most from this journey. Then he can understand the significance of Ithaca.
You can read the full poem here.
This poem deals with Odysseus’ journey to “Ithaka.” The meaning of this poem is simple yet there are layers of meanings. To begin with, through this piece, the poet signifies the importance of the journey of life. “Ithaka” is a metaphor and it can be comparable to different ideas. Readers can compare it to knowledge or a spiritual abode.
Through this journey to Ithaca, Odysseus comes across several difficulties as well as he encounters numerous learning opportunities. Not only that, on the way, he can discover unknown regions and cultivate his knowledge. Last but not least, he can buy unique items from the regions he discovers on the way to Ithaca. If he takes his time and does not think much about returning to his homeland anyhow, he can become more capable, wise, and spiritually awakened as a person at the end of this arduous voyage.
This poem consists of five stanzas and the line-count in each of them is not regular. The number of lines in a section decreases as a reader progresses through the poem.
There is not a specific rhyme scheme. It is a free verse poem that does not resemble conventional diction. Though there is not any rhythmic pattern, it does not sound monotonous. Cavafy uses internal rhyming for maintaining the flow of this piece.
The short lines increase the pace of this poem. While the end-stopped lines hinder the flow a bit. By these lines, the poet presents important ideas. Apart from that, the text does not have a specific metrical scheme. It mostly consists of the iambic-trochaic meter. Such a metrical pattern gives this piece a conversational outlook.
The title of the poem, ‘Ithaka’ is a metaphor. Cavafy presents it as a spiritual resort of Odysseus. It is his home island as well. In the text, the poet uses some other devices that are not limited to the device mentioned above.
He uses repetition in the line, “full of adventure, full of discovery.” Readers can find the use of palilogy here. In the next lines, he uses allusion to the mythical giants such as Laistrygonians and Cyclops. The seventh and eighth lines begin with a similar phrase. Therefore, these lines contain anaphora. It is also used in the last two lines of the first stanza.
Cavafy uses alliteration in this poem too. Readers can find this device in the phrases such as “soul sets” and “wealthy with.” There are some epigrams used here. Readers come across such an epigram in these lines, “Keep Ithaka always in your mind./ Arriving there what you’re destined for.”
As you set out for Ithaka
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ begins without any reference to Odysseus, the epic hero. The speaker directly addresses him. It seems as if he knows Odysseus well. Thus, he seems to be a wise counselor who is guiding the hero while he sets out for Ithaca, his home island.
In Homer’s Odyssey, it takes ten eventful years for the eponymous hero to return to his homeland. On the way, he comes across several events that make him a better human being. In this poem, Cavafy specifically refers to the spiritual aspect of the journey. According to him, the road to Ithaka should be a long one. On his way, if Odysseus is adventurous at his heart, he can discover several unseen regions. It will help him to increase his knowledge as well as experience.
While he is on the voyage, he will have to face the Laistrygonians (a tribe of man-eating giants) and Cyclopes (one-eyed giants). For his encounter with the Cyclopes, he may face difficulties in the sea. Cavafy refers to the sea-god Poseidon who is the father of Cyclops. He will be angry with Odysseus as he played a trick on his sons to escape.
Besides, Poseidon is a symbol of the sea. So, “angry Poseidon” is a reference to the sea-storm. The speaker advises Odysseus not to be afraid of the giants as well as the angry sea.
you’ll never find things like that on your way
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
In the next section of the first stanza, Cavafy presents a contrasting idea. Previously, the speaker has guided the hero for not being fearful of the sea and the giants. While in the first line of this section, he assures him that such things can’t be found on the way. But, some conditions should be followed.
Firstly, Odysseus has to keep his thoughts high. The way a person thinks determines the future. Therefore, if the hero is courageous in his thoughts, nothing can subdue him on the way. Secondly, if a rare kind of excitement or urge stirs his soul as well as his body, he might encounter those creatures. He can efficiently tackle a situation if he has a clarity of thoughts.
In the next lines, the speaker presents another condition concerning the difficulties on the sea. According to him, Odysseus won’t encounter those creatures unless he brings them inside his soul. So, here those creatures are metaphorically compared to the worldly attractions that blind the soul. A sinful soul always thinking about worldly pleasures will be mortally trapped by them. Therefore, Odysseus should not think about those things that make him fearful. He should nurture uplifting thoughts in his soul.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
In the second stanza of ‘Ithaka,’ the poet takes a different stand. After advising the hero regarding how to overcome difficulties, he shows how he can make the most of the journey. He hopes there may be several summer mornings to welcome Odysseus. It is important to note here that the “summer morning” is a symbol for life as well as hope.
When he enters the foreign harbors may there be the sunlit morning to welcome him. On his way, he may halt at the trading stations of Phoenicia (An ancient civilization that originated in the Levant region of the eastern Mediterranean). There he can buy fine things such as mother of pearl and coral. He can also find the ornament made from amber and things made with ebony wood.
The hero can buy the perfumes, as many as he can, that stimulate sensual pleasure. It seems here the poet is referring to the perfumes available in Arabia. Besides, he may visit Egyptian cities where he can learn new things from wise scholars. In this way, he can prolong the journey for the betterment of his spirit and mind.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
The third stanza begins with the importance of one’s homeland. According to the speaker, Odysseus should always keep the essence of Ithaka alive in his mind. His country has brought him up and given him the resources that he needed while leaving his home island. One day, he will be arriving there. It is destined to happen. But, hurrying to reach the end before incorporating the lessons learned from the journey, should not be encouraged.
The speaker thinks it should be better if his journey lasts for years. So, he will turn old by the time he reaches Ithaca. In this way, his knowledge will be increased. The same goes for his experience.
While he is about to return, he can be wealthy with all the resources he gained on the way. Bur, he should not expect his homeland to make him rich. As his motherland has already taught him how to increase intellectual wealth. So, wanting anything in return from her is mere foolishness.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
She has nothing left to give you now.
In this section, Cavafy makes it clear why Odysseus should not expect Ithaca to make him rich. According to him, the desire to return to his country has given him a marvelous journey. It is constructive in both ways, intellectually and spiritually. Without the lifelong learning he got from his motherland, he would not have set out for the journey at all. Therefore, he has to give something in return to her, rather than wanting something back.
Whatsoever, his motherland does not have anything more to offer. She gives open-heartedly to those who seek something from her. Her heart is always for the gallant souls who know how to make the most of the time given to them. Though she has nothing more to give one back, what she has already given is more valuable than wealth.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
It is important to mention here that Cavafy has used personification in the previous stanza as well as here. He infuses life into Ithaca and presents the island as a mother who nourished men like Odysseus.
As mentioned earlier, Odysseus might become rich before the completion of the journey. So, when he will kiss the shores after a long time, he may find his country poor. At that time, he should not be shocked. For providing nourishment to those who lived there, she is now left with nothing.
Apart from that, the journey has taught him many things. He is wiser than before and more experienced. So, on seeing Ithaca after a long time, the old Odysseus can understand “what these Ithakas mean.” One cannot understand the value of one’s motherland until one becomes ripe in experience and age.
Cavafy wrote ‘Ithaka’ (also pronounced as “Ithaca”) in 1911, inspired by the return journey of Odysseus to his home island, as described in Homer’s Odyssey. This epic describes his travails lasting for 10 years, as he tries to return home after the Trojan War. By returning to Ithaca, he can reassert his place as the rightful king. The poem, ‘Ithaka’ deals with the journey of life through the metaphors of Ithaca and Odysseus. It appears in “C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems” published in 1975. Cavafy’s poems published in this book were translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard.
Here is a list of a few poems that similarly deals with the theme of the journey of life as depicted in C. P. Cavafy’s poem, ‘Ithaka’.
- Ithaca by Carol Ann Duffy – It’s one of Duffy’s best-known poems. This poem addresses Odysseus or an imaginary modern traveler and signifies the importance of Ithaca. Explore more Carol Ann Duffy poetry.
- Odysseus to Telemachus by Joseph Brodsky – This poem is told from the perspective of Odysseus while he is stranded on Circe’s island on his way to Ithaca. Read more poems of Joseph Brodsky.
- Canto I by Ezra Pound – This poem contains a translation of Odysseus’ journey into the realm of death and it’s one of Pound’s best-known poems. Explore more poems from Ezra Pound.
- The Lotos-eaters by Alfred Lord Tennyson – It’s one of Tennyson’s well-known poems. This poem is based on a portion of Odyssey in which Odysseus’ men are fed lotos plants and mesmerized by the land they have stumbled. Explore more Alfred Lord Tennyson poetry.