Sunday, 1 January 2012

Christmas Poems (18): Ithaka by CP Cavafy

The naming and circumcision of the Christ Child, depicted in a stained-glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Patrick Comerford

Today is New Year’s Day, a day for new beginnings, for renewing relationships, for new beginnings, and for setting out on new ventures.

In the Church Calendar, this is not the beginning of the Church Year – the Church Year begins with Advent. Instead, today [1 January] we recall the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus.

The celebration of this festival marks three events: firstly, the naming of the infant; secondly, the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham “and his children for ever,” thus Christ’s keeping of the Law; and thirdly, traditionally the first shedding of the Christ’s blood.

The most significant of these in the Gospels is the name itself, which means “Yahweh saves” and so is linked to the question asked by Moses of God: “What is your name?” “I am who I am,” was the reply, thus the significance of Christ’s words: “Before Abraham was, I am,” or the “I AM” sayings in the Fourth Gospel.

The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary for the Eucharist are: Numbers 6: 22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4: 4-7; Luke 2: 15-21. In Gospel reading, Saint Luke recalls the Circumcision and Naming of Christ in a short, terse summary account in one, single verse: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2: 21).

This feast has been observed in the church since at least the sixth century, and the circumcision of Christ has been a common subject in Christian art since the tenth century. A popular 14th century work, the Golden Legend, explains the Circumcision as the first time the Blood of Christ is shed, and thus the beginning of the process of the redemption, and a demonstration too that Christ is fully human.

Saint Luke does not say where the Christ Child was circumcised, although artists (Rembrandt in particular) have often depicting the ritual taking place in the Temple, linking the Circumcision with the Presentation, so that Christ’s suffering begins and ends in Jerusalem.

The beginning of redemption, the beginning of the New Covenant, the beginning of the New Year ... as TS Eliot opens and closes ‘East Coker’:

“In my beginning is my end ...In my end is my beginning” ... a sign for the old year and the new year in Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

If Eliot unites our beginnings and our ends, then for the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), in his poem ‘Ithaka’ (1911) – which I have chosen as my Christmas poem this morning –the beginning of the journey is being as important as the end itself, the journey as important as the destination.

The harbour at Pythagoreio on the island of Samos ... for Cavafy, the beginning of the journey is as important as the end, the journey as important as the destination (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

When I was in Kephallonia some years ago, it was impossible not to want to set sail for Ithaka, and when I was in Alexandria it was impossible not to go in search through the backstreets for Cavafy’s home in the former Greek Quarter. The Alexandria Cavafy writes about in his poems has now mostly vanished, and there are few Greeks left in the city today, alongside Cavafy’s apartment, which is maintained as a museum and library by the Greek government, the hospital he was treated in, a few sea front cafes, and a few churches, including Saint Saba, the seat of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria.

As I visited his former apartment, I was told again how, in his dying days, Cavafy had asked: “Where could I live better? Under me is a house of ill repute, which caters to the needs of the flesh. Over there is the church, where sins are forgiven. And beyond is the hospital, where we die.”

Some 20 years after Cavafy’s death in 1933, WH Auden spoke of his “unique perspective on the world” and his “unique tone of voice.” The Greek poet George Seferis conceded that he was the most important poet in the 20th century writing in Greek. Auden spoke of the unique capacity of Cavafy’s work to survive translation, so that the reader who has no Greek still feels on reading a poem by Cavafy that “nobody else could possibly have written it.”

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis regarded Cavafy’s ‘Ithaka’ as one of her favourite poems and asked for Maurice Templesman to read it at her funeral in May 1994. He concluded his reading by saying: “And now the journey is over, too short, alas, too short. It was filled with adventure and wisdom, laughter and love, gallantry and grace. So farewell, farewell.” I was in Crete at the time, and when the New York Times reprinted the poem, it inspired a rush of sales of Cavafy’s Collected Poems, with new printings and new English translations.

That sudden rise in interest in Cavafy, brought about by such a simple poem, shows how most of us have a inborn ability to love poetry. Cavafy paints captivating images of ships sailing into harbours on summer mornings, of exotic bazaars and souks. Yet the lasting image is of the journey of life being of value in itself, rather than any of the honours or recognition we strive in vain to achieve.

Penelope waiting for Odysseus ... Μαριάννα Βαλλιάνου, Η επιστροφή, Mariánna Valliánou, ‘The Return’

In the poem ‘Ithaka,’ Cavafy transforms Homer’s account of the return of Odysseus from the Trojan War to his home island. This transformation is a variation on how Dante and Tennyson handle the same theme. They offer an Odysseus who arrives home after a long absence only to find Ithaka less than fully satisfying and who soon makes plans to travel forth a second time.

However, Cavafy answers them by telling Odysseus that arriving in Ithaka is what he is destined for, and that he must keep that always in mind: one’s destiny, the inevitable end of the journey, is a thing to be faced for what it is, without illusions.

“May there be many a summer morning when,/ with what pleasure, what joy,/ you come into harbours seen for the first time” ... the Venetian harbour in Réthymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford 2010)

The meaning of Ithaka is in the voyage home that it inspired. It is not reaching home or again escaping its limitations once there that should occupy Odysseus so much as those elevated thoughts and rare excitement that are a product of the return voyage.

As Edmund Keeley says, this new perspective is what frees the voyager’s soul of the monsters, obstacles and angry gods, so that when the voyager reaches his Ithaka he will be rich not with what Ithaka has to offer him on his return, but with all that he has gained along the way, including his coming to know that this perspective on things, this unhurried devotion to pleasure and knowledge, is Ithaka’s ultimate value.

“As you set out for Ithaka/ hope the voyage is a long one, full of adventure, full of discovery” (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

Ιθάκη, Κωνσταντίνος Π. Καβάφης

Σα βγεις στον πηγαιμό για την Ιθάκη,
να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος,
γεμάτος περιπέτειες, γεμάτος γνώσεις.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον θυμωμένο Ποσειδώνα μη φοβάσαι,
τέτοια στον δρόμο σου ποτέ σου δεν θα βρεις,
αν μέν’ η σκέψις σου υψηλή, αν εκλεκτή
συγκίνησις το πνεύμα και το σώμα σου αγγίζει.
Τους Λαιστρυγόνας και τους Κύκλωπας,
τον άγριο Ποσειδώνα δεν θα συναντήσεις,
αν δεν τους κουβανείς μες στην ψυχή σου,
αν η ψυχή σου δεν τους στήνει εμπρός σου.

Να εύχεσαι νάναι μακρύς ο δρόμος.
Πολλά τα καλοκαιρινά πρωιά να είναι
που με τι ευχαρίστησι, με τι χαρά
θα μπαίνεις σε λιμένας πρωτοειδωμένους
να σταματήσεις σ’ εμπορεία Φοινικικά,
και τες καλές πραγμάτειες ν’ αποκτήσεις,
σεντέφια και κοράλλια, κεχριμπάρια κ’ έβενους,
και ηδονικά μυρωδικά κάθε λογής,
όσο μπορείς πιο άφθονα ηδονικά μυρωδικά
σε πόλεις Aιγυπτιακές πολλές να πας,
να μάθεις και να μάθεις απ’ τους σπουδασμένους.

Πάντα στον νου σου νάχεις την Ιθάκη.
Το φθάσιμον εκεί είν’ ο προορισμός σου.
Aλλά μη βιάζεις το ταξείδι διόλου.
Καλλίτερα χρόνια πολλά να διαρκέσει
και γέρος πια ν’ αράξεις στο νησί,
πλούσιος με όσα κέρδισες στον δρόμο,
μη προσδοκώντας πλούτη να σε δώσει η Ιθάκη.

Η Ιθάκη σ’ έδωσε τ’ ωραίο ταξείδι.
Χωρίς αυτήν δεν θάβγαινες στον δρόμο.
Άλλα δεν έχει να σε δώσει πια.

Κι αν πτωχική την βρεις, η Ιθάκη δεν σε γέλασε.
Έτσι σοφός που έγινες, με τόση πείρα,
ήδη θα το κατάλαβες η Ιθάκες τι σημαίνουν

Ithaka, Constantine P. Cavafy

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 harbours 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 marvellous 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.

– Constantine Cavafy (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

Tomorrow: ‘Ring out the old, ring in the new,’ by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.