I was talking to some friends at my local Starbucks the other day and brought up an allusion to one of my favorite poems – a poem they were unfamiliar with: Ithaca, by Constantine Cavafy.
I used to have a printout of this poem stuck inside my cupboard at home in India, probably since I was about eighteen years old. Every time I looked into my cupboard I saw it and while I didn’t always stop to read the whole thing, sometimes my eye would just catch a line as I walked by and I’d be reminded of why the poem meant so much to me. Other times I’d miss the paper entirely, focusing on one of the other bits of paper or the Aishwarya Rai or Bon Jovi cut-outs I’d stuck up with cello-tape to give my door some personality.
When I moved to Dubai, I remember one of my best friends saying, as we talked about homesickness that she’d read the poem for the first time. I think she was surprised she hadn’t read it before and it soon became a poem she began to count as a personal favorite too. Either way, the poem is special to me for so many reasons.
In my line of work, payoffs are hard-won, sometimes unseen ( in the sense that they happen but we might never even know so) and often delayed. There are so many moments of self-doubt, of questioning, of wondering ‘is it all worth it?’ At other times we luxuriate in the fulfillment that comes from impacting young lives. As I said to my friend, the best we can hope for is that years after we die, somebody might remember us and acknowledge that they were positively affected by our work and our words.
At any rate, Ithaca is one of those poems that’s worked its way into the canon of my significant and literary references, so I wanted to share it with all of you. Below is the text of the translation of Ithaca as well as a voice over by Sean Connery that is sure to get the hairs on the back of your neck standing to attention! Give it some time to sink in, savor every word, read between the lines and let it resonate with the deepest parts of your being like it has for thousands of people since it was first written over a 100 years ago.
I’d love to hear back on what you make of it!
By Constantine Cavafy
When you set sail for Ithaca,
wish for the road to be long,
full of adventures, full of knowledge.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
an angry Poseidon — do not fear.
You will never find such on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, and your spirit
and body are touched by a fine emotion.
The Lestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
a savage Poseidon you will not encounter,
if you do not carry them within your spirit,
if your spirit does not place them before you.
Wish for the road to be long.
Many the summer mornings to be when
with what pleasure, what joy
you will enter ports seen for the first time.
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase the fine goods,
nacre and coral, amber and ebony,
and exquisite perfumes of all sorts,
the most delicate fragrances you can find.
To many Egyptian cities you must go,
to learn and learn from the cultivated.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind.
To arrive there is your final destination.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better for it to last many years,
and when old to rest in the island,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to offer you wealth.
Ithaca has given you the beautiful journey.
Without her you would not have set out on the road.
Nothing more does she have to give you.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not deceived you.
Wise as you have become, with so much experience,
you must already have understood what Ithacas mean.