One of the things that helps me to learn Greek is listening to songs and reading poems. It’s a useful way of learning words and, even though poetic language often uses contorted syntax, a good aide-memoire for grammar points. Over and above that though is the short cut it provides to the culture of the country, what it celebrates and values, its feelings, its way of thinking and how it expresses itself.
I’ve even been known to take a poem or the text of a song with me on holiday to Greece to commit to memory. One I’ve tried to learn is Cavafy’s poem Ithaca, but at the moment it’s just too long and its language a bit too much of a stretch for my level of Greek. It is a beautiful poem though and like many poems that draw you in, there’s something mysterious about it, something that you can’t quite grasp no matter how many times you read it, something elusive like Ithaca itself for Odysseus.
My Greek tutor, Maria, tells me that this is one of the first poems that Greek children learn at school. I can’t think of a better one to start the journey of life and learning.
For me too it evokes Greece in the summer: sea shading from light to dark blue and emerald, ozone and its salty tang, cloudless azure skies, blinding light, fierce heat. Standing on harbours, looking into clear water, watching yachts, cruisers, fishing boats come and go, each on their own journey of discovery, you get a sense of what the search for Ithaca means in the poem.
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
Translation by Edmund Keeley / Philip Sherrard