five poems by constantine p. cavafy

Ithaca

When you start on your journey to Ithaca,
then pray that the road is long,
full of adventure, full of knowledge.
Do not fear the Lestrygonians
and the Cyclopes and the angry Poseidon.
You will never meet such as these on your path,
if your thoughts remain lofty, if a fine
emotion touches your body and your spirit.
You will never meet the Lestrygonians,
the Cyclopes and the fierce Poseidon,
if you do not carry them within your soul,
if your soul does not raise them up before you. 

Then pray that the road is long.
That the summer mornings are many,
that you will enter ports seen for the first time
with such pleasure, with such joy!
Stop at Phoenician markets,
and purchase fine merchandise,
mother-of-pearl and corals, amber and ebony,
and pleasurable perfumes of all kinds,
buy as many pleasurable perfumes as you can;
visit hosts of Egyptian cities,
to learn and learn from those who have knowledge. 

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for long years;
and even to anchor at the isle when you are old,
rich with all that you have gained on the way,
not expecting that Ithaca will offer you riches. 

Ithaca has given you the beautiful voyage. 
Without her you would never have taken the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca has not defrauded you.
With the great wisdom you have gained, with so much experience,
you must surely have understood by then what Ithacas mean.

– constantine p. cavafy (trans. rae dalven)

Ionian

Because we smashed their statues,
because we threw them out of their temples,
in no way means their gods are dead.
O Ionian land, the gods still love you,
their souls still remember you.
When an August morning dawns over you,
an energy from the gods’ lives crosses through your atmosphere;
and sometimes an ethereal adolescent form,
indistinct, with a quick stride,
crosses above your hills.

– constantine p. cavafy (trans. aliki barnstone)

Envoys from Alexandria

For centuries they hadn’t seen gifts at Delphi
as wonderful as those sent by the two brothers,
the rival Ptolemaic kings. But now that they have them,
the priests are nervous about the oracle. They’ll need
all their experience to decide
how to express it tactfully, which of the two—
of two brothers like these—will have to be offended.
And so they meet secretly at night
to discuss the family affairs of the Lagids.
 
But suddenly the envoys are back. They’re taking their leave.
Returning to Alexandria, they say. And they don’t ask
for an oracle at all. The priests are delighted to hear it
(they’re to keep the marvelous gifts, that goes without saying)
but they’re also completely bewildered,
having no idea what this sudden indifference means.
They do not know that yesterday the envoys heard serious news:
the “oracle” was pronounced in Rome; the partition was decided there. 

– constantine p. cavafy (trans. edmund keelley/philip sherrard)

The God Forsakes Antony

When suddenly at the midnight hour
an invisible troupe is heard passing
with exquisite music, with shouts -
do not mourn in vain your fortune failing you now,
your works that have failed, the plans of your life
that have all turned out to be illusions.
As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
bid her farewell, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all do not be fooled, do not tell yourself
it was only a dream, that your ears deceived you;
do not stoop to such vain hopes.
As if long prepared for this, as if courageous,
as it becomes you who are worthy of such a city;
approach the window with firm step,
and listen with emotion, but not
with the entreaties and complaints of the coward,
as a last enjoyment listen to the sounds,
the exquisite instruments of the mystical troupe,
and bid her farewell, the Alexandria you are losing.

– constantine p. cavafy (trans. rae dalven)

The Ides of March

Fear grandeurs, O soul.
And if you cannot overcome
your ambitions, pursue them with hesitation
and caution. And the more you advance,
the more inquisitive, careful you must be.

And when you reach your peak, Caesar at last;
when you assume the form of a famous man,
then above all beware when you go out in the street,
a conspicuous ruler with followers,
if by chance from the mob approaches
some Artemidorus, bringing a letter
and says hastily ‘Read this immediately,
these are grave matters that concern you,’
do not fail to stop; do not fail to push aside
all those who salute and kneel
(you can see them later); let even the Senate
itself wait, and immediately recognise
the grave writings of Artemidorus.

– constantine p. cavafy