- Visitors & Friends
- About the University
The quest for Ithaca
Matt Pickles | 26 Jun 12
‘Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? Those people were a kind of solution.’
These lines, written by the poet Constantine P Cavafy to criticise political systems and one-size-fits-all ideologies, have lately been used by the Greek media to reflect on the country’s ongoing financial crisis and IMF intervention.
Given that Cavafy died in 1933 this might seem unusual but Foteini Dimirouli of the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages points out that the themes of his poetry are timeless and eerily applicable to Greece today.
‘His poetry deals with decadence and history’s ironic twists, as well as the concept of ‘crisis’ as a reoccuring event’, she explains. ‘So Cavafy’s poetry provides ample grounds for allegorical use for Greek journalists, whose target audience would already be familiar with the poet’s name and work from their schooldays.’
The story of Cavafy is an interesting one. He has become an emblematic cultural figure for Greece and part of the literary canon of Europe – ‘he represents for Greece what TS Eliot represents for England,’ Dimirouli says.
Yet his personality and private life are surrounded by mystery – his homosexuality, preference to distribute his poetry to his close friends rather than publish it, and unusual demeanour all contributed to his myth.
His poetry only gained widespread recognition after his death but his work has since become an inspiration for many – his poem Ithaca was even read aloud at the funeral of Jacky Kennedy.
In one instance, Cavafy’s words are eerily appropriate for the current financial situation in Greece. A letter from Cavafy to EM Forster in which he compares the Greeks and the English in 1918 reads: ‘But there is one unfortunate difference between us, one little difference. We Greeks have lost our capital – and the results are what you see. Pray, my dear Forster, oh pray, that you never lose your capital.’
Ms Dimirouli says: ‘We still don’t know exactly what he meant with ‘loss of capital’, whether he was referring to Constantinople or financial crisis – but Forster interprets it as the latter.’
But his writings also give more general messages of advice for those in Greece who are struggling. Ithaca, his poem about Odysseus’ treacherous voyage home to Ithaca, suggests that Cavafy saw trials and tribulations as part of life, providing a wisdom which is valuable regardless of the outcome. In the long run, Cavafy suggests, what you experience and learn on the way is more important than achieving a goal.
The poem concludes: 'And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you. Wise as you will have become, with so much experience, you will have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean’