The arrivals and departures board at London Airport, later Heathrow, in 1960. (Photo by Edward Wing via Getty Images)

Things Worth Remembering: Hope That the Road Is a Long One

Constantine Cavafy’s poem ‘Ithaca’ reminds us that life should be about the journey, not the destination.

Welcome back to Douglas Murray’s Sunday column, Things Worth Remembering, where he presents passages from great poets he has committed to memory—and explains why you should, too. To listen to Douglas read from Constantine Cavafy’s “Ithaca,” click below:

I mentioned Constantine Cavafy before, and I would like to return to him once more. Because this poem isn’t just one of Cavafy’s best, it’s one of my personal favorites. 

Once again, I have ended up with the Daniel Mendelsohn translation in my head. Again, as is usual in translation, there isn’t a rhyme scheme to keep you on track, so it is certainly harder to get into your head than some of the other poems I have written about. But it is worth it.

One of Cavafy’s most haunting poems, “The City,” describes someone who has destroyed their life and who sets out from the metropolis where the ruin happened for another shore, confident that if they can be in a different place, they can start again. 

On that occasion, Cavafy has a final stanza that packs a real kick in the guts. Because there is a type of person—not everyone, but a type—who will find that the city follows them. And though they think they have ruined their life in just one city, it turns out they have ruined it in the world entire. That short poem is a good life lesson, or at least a good life warning.

But an even greater poem of Cavafy’s is “Ithaca.” This poem gives advice on how to live the opposite version of the life just described. Ithaca is the isle toward which Ulysses sets out in Homer’s Odyssey. The same journey that Tennyson describes in “Ulysses.” You don’t need to know any of this to appreciate Cavafy’s poem, though it helps to make better sense of the things he warns you might find on the journey.

There is a simplistic interpretation of the poem; that it is essentially just a long way of saying the journey, not the arrival, is what matters. 

If that had been all Cavafy had meant to say, then he would have said it. But Cavafy never spun words pointlessly. Nor is it simply the case that Ithaca is a synonym for death, though again, there seems no harm in anyone reading the poem and taking that as the meaning. What strikes me about the poem is that it suggests a whole attitude toward life. A suitable attitude, in my own view.

Having first read it 25 years ago, I have had so many occasions when the poem has bubbled up in my mind. 

A few examples.

This post is for paying subscribers only


Already have an account? Log in