Cavafy’s Homer

for Diana Haas



How did Constantine Cavafy get to “Ithaca”? Not the island, of course, but the 1911 poem that is Cavafy’s most famous and best-loved work, which begins by admonishing its nameless second-person addressee—who may be Homer’s Odysseus, but could also be us, the reader—to “hope that the road is a long one, / filled with adventures, filled with discoveries” as he “sets out on the way to Ithaca”: the hero’s island home, the all-important destination in the myths that Homer’s poems adapted, perhaps the most famous destination in world literature. Certainly “Ithaca” is the poet’s most famous and beloved work, at least in the anglophone world and particularly in America, where a reading of it at Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ funeral in 1994 briefly made Cavafy a bestseller.
And how not? Its apparent message—that in life, the journey is more important than the destination—nicely dovetails with a certain strand in American popular culture, which goes to frenetic lengths to avoid thinking about death (for this, of course, is what “the destination” is, in Cavafy’s poem), focusing instead, and with equal franticness, on filling “the journey” (which is to say, life itself) with as much activity as possible. The sentimentality of this apparent “message,” as it is now often read, has not endeared “Ithaca” to some of Cavafy’s most ardent admirers. In a review of the 1975 English translation of the poet’s work by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, my late friend Walter Kaiser, a Harvard professor and far-ranging critic as well as a keen Neo-hellenophile, was referring to “Ithaca” when he swiped at “one or two overrated poems in inadequate translation” in the poet’s oeuvre that were likely to be have been known to English-speaking audiences, before the appearance of Keeley and Sherrard’s landmark translation made “the Alexandrian” better known than he had ever been.
It is hard not to think that Kaiser dislikes “Ithaca” not because it is so popular, but because—at least, as he understood it—it exhibits few of the qualities that so many prize in this poet. Deservedly, Cavafy’s mature work has earned a reputation as being expressive of a dry-eyed, even world-weary realism about the human condition: if not outright disillusioned then certainly illusion-less, whether the aspect of the human condition under examination is the wide sweep of history writ large, or the narrow space of our most intimate erotic yearnings. And yet Cavafy himself, who ruthlessly purged his own work—he repudiated twenty-seven of his early published works, precisely, one could argue, because they were in fact cheaply sentimental; each year very little of what he wrote survived his winnowing process—Cavafy himself chose to include “Ithaca” in the first of the three published collections that he carefully curated and organized: the so-called Poems 1905⁠–1915. Chose, I should add, not only to include it, but to foreground it: “Ithaca” appears ninth in a series of forty poems—part of the crucial introductory sequence, that is to say, of his entire published oeuvre, a sequence none of whose other elements, we can safely say, is characterized by sentimentality.
And indeed, if we return to my opening question—“How did Cavafy get to ‘Ithaca’?”—one answer is to analyze the route charted by the poet himself: that is, to examine the rigorously deliberate ordering of poems that lead up to “Ithaca” at the beginning of Poems 1905⁠–1915, which constitutes a “corridor” of verse through which the reader is meant to proceed as he approaches, absorbs, and then passes “Ithaca.”
Poems 1905⁠–1915 begins, famously, by asking the reader to enter the published work through twin portals: the first two poems in the collection are “The City,” and “The Satrapy.” “The City” is an ostensibly contemporary poem, addressed to an anonymous “you” who is eager to leave behind the unnamed “city” of the title (which may or may not be Alexandria, but could be any city, any civilization, any history); in his resigned wisdom, the narrator admonishes his anonymous interlocutor that “you’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores . . . The City will follow you . . . You’ll always end up in this city.”[1] This bleak invocation of “the city” as a symbol of the weight of history and habit reaches a grim climax: “Just as you’ve destroyed your life, here in this / small corner, so you’ve wasted it through all the world.”
The second poem in the collection, “The Satrapy,” expresses a similarly stark idea—that we err disastrously when we try to fool ourselves into thinking we can escape our pasts and begin again—but sets it in the ancient world. It seems to address the fifth-century BC Athenian politician and general Themistocles, who fled Athens for the court of the Persian emperor Artaxerxes, an autocrat who has it within his power to bestow entire satrapies on the Greek. But Themistocles dreams only of his home, Athens: of its Demos and its Sophists, its Agora, the Theater of Dionysus. As we enter into this poet’s distinctive world, then—passing one gatepost that represents the present and the other, the ancient past; the two time zones that will alternate throughout all the work—we are grimly reminded of the iron hold that the past, our histories and innermost natures, has on us, whatever optimistic fantasies of escape or new beginnings that we may cling to.
Indeed, only the specially gifted, sages and poets—the subjects of the collection’s third poem, “But Wise Men Apprehend What Is Imminent”—have the gift of perceiving not just the present, as ordinary people do, nor far into the future, as the gods do, but of hearing the “the secret call of what is about to happen”: the murky zone that hovers just before us, and into which most of us can merely stumble, intent as we tend to be on the here and now, on our present plans and stratagems. ΤThe next few poems in the sequence dramatically illustrate the consequences of this kind of self-absorbed blindness on the part of ordinary mortals. The fourth, “The Ides of March,” vividly evokes a famous incident from ancient history: how Julius Caesar, on his way to the Senate meeting at which he would be assassinated, was handed an urgent letter of warning by the Greek sage Artemidorus. But in his preoccupation with the business he had at hand, Caesar failed to read it. In the fifth poem of the sequence, the grimly titled “Finished,” Teleiomena, a more abstract evocation of this particular kind of failure, is grippingly presented: “Deep in fear and in suspicion / we wear ourselves out figuring how / we might avoid the certain / danger that threatens us so terribly / . . . But a disaster that we never imagined /suddenly, shatteringly breaks upon us.” Between “The Ides of March” and this unsettling work, then, we encounter once more an oscillation between the ancient and the contemporary worlds that will characterize the entire oeuvre—one that allows us to keep revisiting the same problems through different lenses.
Hence the sequence’s sixth and seventh poems, “The God Abandons Antony” and “Theodotus,” both of which graphically illustrate the results of our inevitable failure to “apprehend what is imminent”—to foresee the consequences of the actions that we undertake under the foolish delusion that we know how things will turn out. “The God Abandons Antony” addresses one of Cavafy’s favorite characters, Marc Antony, on the evening of his suicide, when the Roman, so Plutarch tells us, defeated by Octavian and facing certain death, thought he heard a festival procession of his patron god, Bacchus, passing by; this jarring juxtaposition of imminent death and Bacchic celebration leads the narrator to urge his doomed addressee to face his fate with courage: “with deep emotion, but not / with the entreaties and the whining of a coward . . . and bid farewell to her, to Alexandria, whom you are leaving.”
The dignified, clear-eyed resignation in the face of total defeat that the poet recommends here for the first time in Poems 1905⁠–1915 (there would be much more of this throughout his corpus) arises out of the awareness that we can in fact never see beyond the present. The point is brought home in a slightly different fashion by the next in this sequence, “Theodotus.” This poem, which like “The Ides of March” is addressed to Julius Caesar, warns against complacency with respect to the unforeseen and always unforeseeable outcomes of our actions. During the Roman Civil wars, Caesar defeated his one-time friend and in-law Pompey, who fled for refuge at the court of Ptolemy in Alexandria; there Theodotus, a Greek rhetorician and courtier, urged the young King Ptolemy to murder Pompey, assuming that to do so would ingratiate Ptolemy with Caesar. But the execution disgusted and grieved the victorious Roman. However clever we think we are, however powerful and celebrated, we can never know fully the distant ramifications of even the most carefully plotted actions. “Maybe,” the poem concludes, rather creepily, “at this very moment, into some neighbor’s / nicely tidied house there comes / . . . Theodotus, bringing one such terrifying head.”
In the atmosphere created in this opening sequence, there is no optimistic alternative to these grim verdicts on human pursuit of glory and greatness, which here always seems to end so badly. And yet the next poem suggests what kind of life we might have if we don’t try, at least, to make life meaningful:


On one monotone day one more
monotone, indistinct day follows. The same
things will happen, then again recur—
identical moments find us, then go their way.
One month passes bringing one month more.
What comes next is easy enough to know:
the boredom from the day before.
And tomorrow’s got to where it seems like no tomorrow.


It is only now, after we have experienced a series of oscillations among all these unappealing possibilities—the starkly bleak vision of human action, dragged down by the burden of the past, that we find in “The City” and “The Satrapy”; the none-too-optimistic appraisal of ordinary human wisdom, or happiness, or both, that we find in “But Wise Men Apprehend What Is Imminent,” “The Ides of March,” “Theodotus,” “Finished,” and even “The God Abandons Antony”; and the dreary horror that haunts “Monotony”—only now, after we have experienced all that, do we get to “Ithaca.”
What is it doing there, and what does it really mean?
In order to determine the true—and truly Cavafian—nature of this crucial work, I want to reconsider it from a particular if narrow angle: that is, to read it against the poet’s other poems that treat Homeric themes or episodes. This reading, I hope, will lead to some useful conclusions not only about “Ithaca,” but about the poet’s understanding of Homer, and of the differences between the Iliad and the Odyssey, and of the way in which those Homeric considerations illuminate some of his favorite themes: aesthetics and mortality, ethical cowardice and moral courage, memory and history.



That a poem ostensibly based on Homer’s Odyssey should have made it into the poet’s final selection of his works is itself something of a surprise. Cavafy has long had the reputation of being a poet with two great subjects—homosexual desire and the remote Hellenic past—but many readers outside of Greece who encounter him for the first time are surprised to learn that the ancient Greek past he is generally interested in is not the one they learned about in high school. As many critics have pointed out over the years, almost without exception in his mature published work Cavafy eschews the Archaic and High Classical civilizations that most Anglophone readers are taught to identity with “Ancient Greece,” and focuses instead on what, until relatively recently, were treated as the gray margins of Greek culture and history: the eastern and southern outposts of Hellenistic civilization, the Persian outback, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt; Late Antiquity; the arc of Byzantium from Julian the Apostate to 1453.
When Cavafy began publishing in the late 1880s and throughout the 1890s, he did, in fact, devote a number of poems to what so many people today think of as “Ancient Greece.” That early period counts no less than three poems inspired by Aeschylus: “Athena’s Vote,” of 1894, which (like that ancient playwright’s Eumenides) puts resounding political sentiments in the mouth of the poem’s eponymous goddess (“To the citizens of Athens thus spoke Pallas: / ‘Your law-court I did found. Neither Hellas / nor another state will e’er attain / another that is worthier . . .’”); “The Naval Battle” of 1899, which riffs the Athenian dramatist’s Persians; and “When the Watchman Saw the Light,” of 1900, inspired by the first play of the Oresteia, Agamemnon. There was a poem about Oedipus as filtered through the French artist Gustave Moreau’s painting of the tragic hero facing the Sphinx; a poem about the myth of the semi-divine youth Phaëthon, Apollo’s son, who took his father’s celestial chariot out for a spin with disastrous results; a lofty poem called “Ancient Tragedy” which in endearingly chauvinistic terms ringingly celebrates the eponymous genre. (“One people gave it birth, one Greek city, / but it took wing straightaway, and set its stage / in heaven . . .”)
In this early output, with its heavy debt to contemporary French poetry and a fervent if cliché Hellenic chauvinism, the young Cavafy was, all too obviously, working through his debt to the Greek canon. Hardly surprising, then, that a number of poems of that period were inspired by Homer, the most authoritative of all Greek authors. Cavafy’s Homeric catalogue includes an 1893 work, “Priam’s March by Night,” which rather breathlessly treats the episode from Book 24 of the Iliad concerning Priam’s journey to the Achaean camp to ransom Hector’s body; an 1894 revisionist fantasy about Odysseus’ return home called “Second Odyssey,” here presented as a distinctly unhappy nostos, the great hero bored by his affectionate son and loyal wife and loving people and eager to get back to sea (the poem owes a little to Dante and a lot to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”); a poem of 1897 called “The Horses of Achilles,” which closely followed Homer’s narrative, from Iliad 17, about how that hero’s supernatural horses wept over the death of Patroclus; and a longish 1898 poem that reimagines the Iliad’s description, in Book 16, of the burial of Sarpedon, an ally of the Trojans and Zeus’s son.
What’s interesting about this list of Cavafy’s extant poems on canonical Greek literature is that the poet decided to omit nearly everything on it from the work that he selected for publication during his lifetime, either in the three dated collections or the so-called Sengopoulos Notebook (the collection of twenty-two poems that he selected and copied out for his friend and heir Alexander Sengopoulos). Some were outright repudiated, others withheld from publication. To some extent, this winnowing surely had to do with Cavafy’s artistic maturation around the turn of the last century: a process that climaxed in the years 1902/1903, when what he called a “Philosophical Scrutiny” of all his published work led to wholesale destruction of reams of early verse, the “flagrant inconsistencies, illogical possibilities, ridicu­lous exaggeration” of which had come to seem unbearable to him. But this scrutiny also reflects a growing confidence in his authentic tastes and interests, which gravitated away from banalities about Periclean Athens and Aeschylean tragedy, seeking instead the fertile soil of the margins—temporal and geographical and indeed erotic—where he would find his artistic matrix.
It is surely noteworthy that the only early poems inspired by the Greek literary canon that not only survived this rigid scrutiny but went on to be included in either Poems 1905⁠–1915 or the Sengopoulos Notebook were those based on Homeric subjects. “The Horses of Achilles,” for instance, is part of a sequence of Iliad-themed poems to be found in the Notebook, while revised versions of two “Repudiated” poems—the one about Sarpedon’s funeral and the one about Odysseus’ homecoming (the latter so heavily revised as to be unrecognizable), made it into the acknowledged work: Sarpedon into the Sengopoulos Notebook and “Ithaca,” of course, into Poems 1905⁠–1915. Two other poems which were included in the collections that Cavafy himself approved also take their inspiration from Homer, both belonging in one way or another to the world of the Iliad: both, it’s worth pointing out, belong to the period during and immediately after the “Philosophical Scrutiny”—which is to say, they were the last poems that Cavafy would ever write having to do with Archaic or Classical Greek literature.
The first, “Betrayal,” which appears in the Notebook, treats a myth from the epic cycle that was also treated in a lost play of Aeschylus (both the epic and the tragedy disdainfully referred to by Plato, whose disapproving comments are preserved in the poem’s epigraph): the story of the wedding of Peleus and Thetis and, particularly, of Apollo’s false promise to the newlywed goddess that her son would enjoy long life. The second, “Trojans,” written in 1900 and published in 1905 (which appears just after “Ithaca” in Poems 1905⁠–1915) clothes a theme that is familiar by now—the futility of human effort against the large forces of chance and history—in epic garb. “Our efforts are the efforts of the Trojans,” it begins, going on to observe that just as “we make a bit of progress,” Achilles emerges from the trench in front of us and scares us away. Anyway, why bother?, since, as the poem concludes,


Up above,
on the walls, already the lament has begun.
They mourn the memory, the sensibility, of our days.
Bitterly Priam and Hecuba mourn for us.


To repeat, then: of all the authors in the catalogue of tradi­tional high Hellenic literary culture, only Homer made it into the corpus of poems that Cavafy deemed fit for consumption.
We must ask why.
A clue, I think, may be found in the difference between the early and later versions of the two poems that the poet kept revisiting and revising during the decade between their original publications and their final forms. The evolution implied by his editorial choices will point us in the direction of a larger appreciation of his sensibility at this watershed moment; and that appreciation, in turn, will help us to understand the unique and crucial placement of “Ithaca”: the only one of Cavafy’s Homeric poems to be based on the Odyssey rather than the Iliad.



I’ll start with the more straightforward case. “The Funeral of Sarpedon” is based on Iliad 16.666 ff.—the passage that describes how Zeus, having briefly flirted with the idea of rescuing his son Sarpedon, the Lycian warlord, from death at the hands of the battle-crazed Patroclus (a notion that an outraged Hera immedi­ately quashes), finally allows Sarpedon to be killed. Zeus then arranges for Apollo to cleanse the body of the fallen hero and transport it back to Asia for proper burial:


And then Zeus who marshals the clouds spoke unto Apollo:
“Come now, beloved Phoibos: clean away the dark gore
Taking him out of range of the flying weapons; and then,
Bearing him far away, wash him in the streams of a river
Then anoint him with ambrosia and clothe him in
immortal garments;
Then hand him off to an escort, a swift one, to bear him
To the twins, Sleep and Death, who then will speedily
Set him down upon the rich land of broad Lykía,
Where his brothers and his kinsmen will honor the solemn
With a grave-mound and a pillar: the honor due
to the dead.”
His words. Nor did Apollo fail to heed his father.


A few lines later this passage is repeated, almost verbatim, as the bard describes Apollo fulfilling that command.
Cavafy’s first, 1898 adaption of this episode, is, to say the least, expansive. It begins with an extravagant description of Zeus’s emotions at having to allow his son to die and moves to a cloyingly pointed juxtaposition of the god’s grief with his reverence for the will of fate: a tired cliché that tells us nothing interesting about either the grief or about fate. Of particular note is the way in which the poet focuses on the dead hero’s body, descriptions of which go far beyond anything in the Homeric text:


The dust and blood, congealed, are washed away
and the features of the just and courageous hero are
revealed. Upon the carcase Phoebus lavishly
pours the perfumes of ambrosia
and covers it up with Olympian,
immortal garments. He closes up
the gaping wound in his chest. He sets
the limbs in a peaceful and winsome array.
His skin glistens. A gleaming comb
combs his locks, abundant locks
and black, which not a single white
hair has sullied yet.
He looks like a young athlete
in repose—like a young lover
dreaming of pleasure and of cupids
with azure wings and celestial
bows—like a young and blessed bridegroom,
fortunate among all his agemates,
who, without groom-gifts, has won a lovely bride.


A bit later, this interest in male physicality expands to include Sleep and Death themselves, whose “fatherly and tender arms” take up the body “with sorrow and love and with care / lest the grave tranquility of the corpse’s face / be disturbed, lest the splendor of / the manly body suffer any harm.” There is, too, the extended pseudo-epic simile, likening the dead man to a young athlete who is, notably, also a young lover: this passage, with its cupids, azure wings, and celestial bows, is wholly in keeping with the bejeweled style Cavafy favored in the 1890s, showing the influence of the Decadents so dear to him at the time.[2] Equally expansive is the younger Cavafy’s treatment of the burial of this gorgeous body. While Homer merely notes that the corpse will be given “a grave-mound and a stele,” tymboi te stêlêi te, to mnima ke tin stili, Cavafy provides a description of the “monument of marble” that includes an account of the inscription on its base, which “told the story of the hero’s victories and of his many campaigns.”
The 1908 revision of this poem is notable for how it pares down the earlier version. Among other things, the opening nostrum about the conflict between parental love versus duty is gone. Above all, the description of the handling of the body is subtly edited, the excess of modifiers elided, the entire work more terse overall. Most tellingly, the comparison of the dead man to an athlete has at once been reduced and enhanced:


Now he resembles a young king, a charioteer,
in his twenty-fifth year, or his twenty-sixth,
who is resting now, since he has won,
with a chariot all of gold and the swiftest steeds,
the trophy in a contest of wide renown.


The earlier version sentimentally emphasized the dead man as an erotic subject: a lover, a young husband around whom those cupids buzz with their blue wings. The later version cuts this material entirely while enhancing what we know about the youth’s athletic career: he was a charioteer, at rest in victory in the horse race, a figure both more Homeric and more Pindaric than the one we met in the original poem. The poignancy of the earlier poem was false—or, at least, conventional; the poignancy of the later version is tougher—and, most important, wholly in keeping with the mature Cavafian sensibility as it is expressed in the opening sequence we find in “Poems 1905⁠–1915.” It nods to the beauty of human striving while acknowledging, with a dignity that replaces the sentimental kitsch of the earlier version, the death that always awaits us at the end of our victories, however great they seem.
This somber and resigned assessment of the possibilities for the human condition is typical of Cavafy’s reading of Homer—or, I should say, his reading of the Iliad and its background myths. We have already seen it at work in “Trojans,” the 1905 poem that makes the defeat of Troy a metaphor for the whole human experience: however hard we try, however brave we may feel, something surprises us, and we retreat, and anyway the mourning has already begun. We see it at work, too, in another “Iliadic” poem of 1904 that appears in the Sengopoulos Notebook, “Betrayal,” Apistia, the poem that recounts the story of how Thetis was duped at her wedding by Apollo, who promised that her son would have long life; years later, when she learns of her son’s death, she learns, too, that it was Apollo himself who had helped kill him. (This poem therefore raises to the divine level a theme very much in keeping with the ethos of the Julius Caesar poems I earlier described, with their regretful appraisals of the impossibility of human happiness, arising from the fact that we are doomed always to have only partial knowledge, partial vision.) This “Iliadic” series of course also includes “The Horses of Achilles,” the 1897 poem that adapts a striking episode in Book 17 of the Iliad: seeing Achilles’ immortal horses weeping for the dead Patroclus, Zeus regrets having given them to Peleus to (as Homer puts it) “suffer pain alongside mortal men . . . for there is nothing as lamentable as man.” In his adaptation of this passage, Cavafy tellingly puts new words in the god’s mouth. Here, Zeus declares that humans are the “playthings of destiny,” to pegnion tis miras.
“Playthings of Destiny” is, indeed, an apt title for the theme that Cavafy repeatedly detects in the Iliad: for gods and humans both, for the goddess Thetis as for the dead mortal Sarpedon, for the Trojans and Greeks, life—the scramble of our convictions and knowledge and attainments and actions—is, in the end, fleeting at best. The poignancy of what happiness and successes we can achieve can only live on in poetry.
And indeed, the final way in which the 1908 version of “The Funeral of Sarpedon” differs from its 1898 avatar is that, in the later version, Cavafy cuts the detailed description of the hero’s tomb: the references in the earlier version to what the inscription on the base of the monument said, its catalogue of the hero’s victories and successes. In the final version, the poet reverts to a Homeric terseness closely echoing the Iliadic text: “craftsmen famed for the work they did in stone / came and made the tomb and the grave-stele.” Our poet does not tell us what the stele said, because he doesn’t need to: the only truly lasting memorial—another Homeric thought, surely, but a thought that also marks the achievement of Cavafy’s poetic maturity—is the poem that you are reading when you read “The Funeral of Sarpedon.”


So what to make of “Ithaca”—the second of the two poems Cavafy kept revisiting? As I hope to have shown, the sequence in “Poems 1905–1915” that leads up to this most famous of his poems is characterized by what I’ll call the “Iliadic” worldview, with its emphasis on the poignancy of human striving, the unknowability of fate, the finality of death, all of which are just redeemable by the afterlife that only poetry can promise.
What is noteworthy is that, with one exception (the bleak “Trojans,” which comes next but one), the poems that immedi­ately follow “Ithaca” are different from those that precede it: gentler, more generous about the possibility of a resigned survival, even dignity, in defeat. Immediately after “Ithaca,” for instance, we get “As Much as You Can,” with its admonition that “even if you cannot make your life the way you want it / this much, at least, try to do / as much as you can: don’t cheapen it . . .” Then, as I’ve mentioned, “Trojans” rises up, Achilles-like, to shatter the mood; but that more forgiving outlook returns immediately with “King Demetrius,” one of the “historical” poems, which sees in catastrophe not an occasion for Iliadic mourning but a celebration (not without some tart humor) of what one might call an Odyssean realism. (It approvingly recounts how the Macedonian warrior-king Demetrius Poliorcetes, having been made aware that his people preferred Pyrrhus as king, had the grace to slip away in the middle of the night—“doing just as an actor does /when, once the perfor­mance is over, / changes his attire and departs.”) And indeed, the sequence of historical poems that immediately follows—“The Glory of the Ptolemies,” “The Battle of Magnesia,” “The Seleucid’s Displeasure,” “Orophernes,” “Alexandrian Kings”—sounds a similar note of indulgence. Each of these works looks indulgently, even approvingly, at the career of one or another of Hellenic history’s self-deluded losers—losers who have, nonetheless, almost nobly found a way to resign themselves to their fates; losers who—unlike Julius Caesar or Antony in the poems that precede “Ithaca,” with their stark depiction of self-destructive folly—manage to survive.
What makes this shift from pessimism to optimism, from death to life possible is “Ithaca.” This single poem, I believe, is meant to function as a kind of transformative portal in that opening sequence, an alembic by means of which the Iliadic worldview of the poems that precede it are alchemized into something more Odyssean, more nuanced in their vision of character and destiny: more maturely Cavafian, too. And how not, given that “Ithaca” is, as I have already mentioned, the only one of Cavafy’s poems to treat the Odyssey? We must respect the significance of this swerve toward the Odyssey, an epic that explicitly sets itself up against the Iliad, that celebration of heroic mortality and the inevitability of death, as the great work about the virtues of survival, of life at any cost.


This, at least, is what I think “Ithaca” is doing. Some clues as to what Cavafy himself thought “Ithaca” was supposed to do are evident in comparisons between its earliest incarnation, written in 1894 as “A Second Odyssey,” and its final version, composed in October 1910 and published the following November.
The roots of the first version may be traced to an unpublished 1894 essay of Cavafy called “The End of Odysseus.” Here, after briefly rehearsing the mythic tradition about the hero’s post-Odyssean career, he turns his attention to Canto 26 of Dante’s Inferno, which, the poet notes, ignores the traditions of the Epic Cycle: “Dante decided to uproot him from his blissful palace, to separate him from his family, and to send him—urged on by the thirst for travel and exploration—on a distant and dangerous voyage, during the course of which he is shipwrecked and drowns”(from “Unpublished Notes on Poetics and Ethics,” translated by Manolis Savidis). In the Commedia, Odysseus appears to Dante and Virgil in the eighth ring (Counsellors of Fraud) in the Eight Circle (Sins of Malice): we hear the story of how, compelled to go on exploring and seeking, he eventually sails over the edge of the earth and perishes.
The poet then turns to Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which also ignores the ancient tradition. Cavafy notes that the further journeying for which, in the British poet’s revisionist version of the myth, the hero yearns, has nothing to do with the expiatory journey that Odysseus learns he must make toward the end of Homer’s epic, in order to satisfy Poseidon’s wrath. Homer tells us that “the idea of a new journey is viewed most unfavorably by Odysseus,” as Cavafy paraphrases it, and indeed in the Odyssey we are told that the hero dies peacefully at home, surrounded by his family and his people.
Much of Cavafy’s essay is given to evaluating Greek translations of Dante and Tennyson, but he also has some interesting things to say about both the Italian and the Englishman. Cavafy applauds Dante for giving Odysseus a completely new final voyage “independent of any external contributing factors” (here he’s referring to Homer’s Poseidon, whose anger against Odysseus is the cause of the hero’s delayed wanderings in the Odyssey): for Cavafy, the Italian’s innovation “confirms the character’s inclination to seek adventure and travel,” a mind-set that, he goes on, necessarily makes Odysseus ill-suited to be content at home, unlike the other heroes of the Trojan War who, Cavafy argues, would happily have settled back into their normal lives. But not Odysseus, whose inability to remain content is, he declares, “the conclusion that emanates psychologically from the Odyssey.” Cavafy has great admiration for this psychological reading, and indeed argues that Tennyson is the less admirable poet of this particular theme because his own poem merely expands on an idea that Dante had come up with first: the vision of the hero as a symbol of intellectual restlessness. Cavafy in fact disapproves of Tennyson’s sour characterizations of Telemachus and Laertes and Penelope as dull and uninspiring (Penelope is reduced to “an aged wife”)—the reasons, we are meant to understand in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” for the hero’s boredom and eagerness to set out again; as part of his negative appraisal of Tennyson, he adduces passages from Dante that make clear the hero’s love for his family.
But one Tennysonian invention wins Cavafy’s firm approval. Dante, of necessity, has to describe the Odysseus’ death: the hero is, after all, in Hell. But Cavafy greatly prefers the open-endedness of Tennyson’s concluding vision of an elderly Odysseus sailing “beyond the sunset”—-sailing into what, he doesn’t say. “The ambiguity of the verses,” Cavafy writes, “casts a spell on the spirit, and presents a picture of Odysseus’ ship proceeding toward the great Western seas with golden horizons and unknown isles.”
In the evolution of his Odysseus poem from 1894 to 1911, it is clear that what came to capture the poet’s imagination were the implications of these “golden horizons and unknown isles.” The first version, “Second Odyssey,” nods only briefly to the possibility of such excitements: overall it is virtually a paraphrase of Tennyson and his weary view of life on Ithaca after the hero’s return. (“Small was his ancestral house . . . Telemachus’s affection, the faithfulness / of Penelope, the years of his father’s old age, / his old companions, the people’s unswerving love, / the blessed repose of the house / entered like rays of joy / into the heart of the seafarer. / And like rays they sank . . . and he left.”) The heart of the seafarer: that heart, according to the early poem’s last two lines, is a faithless “adventuress, exulting coldly, empty of love”: a grim view of the wanderer-hero.
The only element in “Second Odyssey” that doesn’t quote or paraphrase Tennyson is a description of the “nostalgia” that, the poet says, after he has catalogued the dead charms of Odysseus’ family and island, “took hold of him: for voyages, and early-morning / arrivals in harbors which, / with what joy, you enter for the first time.” This one original element of “Second Odyssey” is, in fact, the only element of “Second Odyssey” that survived into the final version: “Ithaca.” And indeed you might say that virtually all of “Ithaca” is an expansion of that one original nugget from 1894: those outward-facing, hopeful, adventurous lines, born of the delicious ambiguity that, as Cavafy saw it, was present embryonically in Tennyson’s ending, with its “golden horizons and unknown isles.”
Another way of saying this is the final version of the poem inverts the proportions of the original: “Second Odyssey” focuses sourly, and a bit glibly, a bit too easily, on the hero’s disappointment on his arrival home, with a brief gesture toward the beauty that constituted his adventuring; whereas “Ithaca” focuses on the adventuring while strenuously deferring any idea of arrival—from the famous injunction of its first line to “hope that the road is a long one” to its repeated advice “not to hurry the journey in any way.” Instead, the poem consists of an elaborate description of what one might find on such a journey—this journey ostensibly being the homeward voyage of Odysseus, which is of course the subject of Homer’s Odyssey, but also, it is impossible not to feel, is the journey of life, that open-ended movement that takes us into a future that we cannot know. In “Ithaca,” this journey is filled with marvels: Phoenician trading posts, Egyptian sages, those summer mornings when we put into harbors new to our eyes (this line imported almost verbatim from the earlier version).
Moreover, if this travel has a destination, it is neither described nor imagined but merely evoked as the shadowy “arrival” that is described as “destiny”—in the same sentence that admonishes its addressee to delay that very arrival: “don’t hurry your trip in any way.” Ithaca is simply an end-point to the marvels upon which the poem dwells with great sensual detail. It’s those marvels that will, somehow, equip us in the end to deal with the destination—which is death, surely—when we get there. “As wise as you will have become, with so much experience, / you will understand, by then, these Ithacas; what they mean.”
Seen in this way—in the context of the poems that surround it, but also against the artistic evolution that made Cavafy turn away from what I want to call an “Iliadic” focus on beauty-in-death, on the noble futility of human endeavor in the face of time and destiny, and toward something we might describe as an Odyssean preoccupation with beauty-in-life, in survival—seen in this way, “Ithaca” emerges not as sentimental cliché but as a monument to a mature understanding of the world: one whose appreciation of what life has to offer isn’t a mushy, feel-good “message,” but derived from a hard-headed acknowledgment of life’s limits.[3] Ithaca the island may be world literature’s most famous desti­nation, but here it is a gateway, a monument to a poetic and ethical evolution both mirrored in and reenacted by the opening sequence of poems in Cavafy’s first collection. In the poems that precede “Ithaca,” a bleakness, almost a hopelessness prevails; in those that follow “Ithaca,” the possibilities have expanded, evoked in poems that seem to abandon the absolutes and foolish certainties that might inspire a certain kind of “hero” to die gloriously.
We can never know with any certainty what it was that triggered Cavafy’s watershed self-reevaluation in the early years of the twentieth century, the soul-searching that triggered the Philosophical Scrutiny and the beginning of a tougher—because more humane—new poetics. Perhaps it was some kind of climactic coming-to-terms with his sexuality after his mother’s death, perhaps it had to do with the dreadful personal losses that piled up at the end of the nineteenth century. Whatever it was, it caused our poet to abandon the morbid aestheticism of his youth, the easy nostrums about life and death, the vacuous paraphrases of Aeschylus, the rote celebrations of tragedy and high Greek civilization. This shift, as I have hoped to suggest, was partly achieved through the poet’s ongoing grappling with Homer and the Homeric legacy, which helped him to clarify his themes and worldview.
Why, out of all ancient Greek literature, did Homer alone survive to haunt Cavafy’s published work? Because taken together, the two epics could reflect the hard-won, bifurcated worldview of a writer who liked to call attention to his double nature by referring to himself as a “poet-historian.” The Iliad and its stark vision of human struggle haunted the poet through his early creative years, as we have seen, and would continue to haunt him well into his maturity—as how could it not, given his historian’s gimlet-eyed appreciation of life and the ironies of history, of the debts we owe to the defeated and the dead? But the Odyssey reminded him of a wisdom just as old, although one to which he, like so many of us, came later and with great difficulty: that there is a poetry, too, in the grinding business of simply getting on with life. In 1894, in the middle of the decade in which he was producing derivative and trite poems inspired by the Greek canon, Cavafy, for whatever reason, stumbled on Canto 26 of the Inferno, and it got him thinking about the Odyssey and its afterlives in Dante and Tennyson. That accident produced a mediocre poem, but the seed had been planted. Ten years later, after a harrowing decade of soul-searching, it germinated in a work that—and what could be a more Cavafian thought?-—had a significance far greater than we could ever have imagined. As wise as we may have become through this “Homeric” reading of Cavafy, we might finally understand his Ithaca, what it means.


[1] All translations by the author unless otherwise noted.
[2] It is almost impossible not to think that here Cavafy owes a debt to Oscar Wilde’s 1881 poem “Charmides,” whose description of the post-mortem attentions by some mermaids to the body of a beautiful drowned youth bears an uncanny resemblance to our poet’s lines:


The boy’s drowned body back to Grecian land,
And mermaids combed his dank and dripping hair
And smoothed his brow, and loosed his clinching hand,
Some brought sweet spices from far Araby,
And others made the halcyon sing her softest lullaby.


[3] Here it is worth remembering Seferis’ appreciation of “Ithaca” as a map of Cavafy’s journey as a poet.