- What These Ithakas Really Mean
While Constantine Cavafy’s “Ithaka” may be his most famous poem today, it was written relatively early in his poetic career and treats subject matter that Cavafy eventually abandoned.1 True, much of Cavafy’s work bridges temporal gaps between his own time and an earlier Hellenistic universe, but a fair bit of that subset and almost all of his work subsequent to “Ithaka” overlooks familiar classical subjects. In fact, Cavafy seems drawn to lesser-known periods in history throughout his work because they are less familiar. The Ptolemeys, the Seleucids, and the fictional voices of those who lived under such lesser-known rulers represent a post-Alexandrian world that provided Cavafy an inroad for his own unique vision of a Hellenism not entirely mainstream: a romantic Greece, a fringe Greece, a Greece in exile.2 But this was not always the case. Cavafy did compose several poems early in his career on topics within the well-known classical canon and, for whatever reasons, decided to abandon such topics as his poetic voice matured. The later obsolete or esoteric classical themes serve Cavafy in two distinct ways, neither mutually exclusive of the other. Little-known subject matter alienates readers from the antiquity with which they feel comfortable and these choices allow the ancient setting to become secondary to Cavafy’s own poetic vision. With unfamiliar ancient references, Cavafy can project freely onto what is now a historical blank slate, devoid of readers’ preconceptions that may originate from a background steeped in the canonical literary tradition.3
On the other hand, when Cavafy addresses a well-known Greek subject in his earlier poems, he anticipates the reader’s recognition and their initial reaction. He does so as a skilled reader of the Homeric corpus, imagining at least one hypothetical audience member (by no means, the only possible audience member) able to engage with the poem as part of a deeper conversation between fellow intellectuals. As each poem progresses, Cavafy manipulates this readerly foreknowledge to provoke responses of alienation and uncertainty not unlike those evoked in his later poems. In the earlier poems, however, the audience’s familiarity with the canon aids Cavafy in bringing about this reaction. Whenever he selects a well-known myth, he immediately creates a bond with the prospective reader over their common heritage and knowledge of the classical canon, thus lulling the [End Page 3] reader into a false sense of recognition and comfort. Then Cavafy swiftly overturns expectations. A familiar reference suddenly becomes unfamiliar and strange, exiling the audience from their pre-existing ideas and thus encouraging them to see something they once thought they understood in a completely new light via Cavafy’s poetic craft. In this respect Cavafy is almost Euripidean in his approach. Like the fifth century BCE tragic poet, Cavafy’s retelling of traditional ancient myths is anything but canonical.4 Within these early poems, the more knowledgeable one is of the Hellenic tradition in which Cavafy is writing, the more one can see how and why he sways from it. His most original thoughts, then, can emerge through a close study of the poems together with the canonical originals and by noting their differences. The more initiated the reader, the more potential there is to experience Cavafy’s original, and often ironic, take on his source material.
For the purposes of this article, I shall only address Cavafy’s published works that allude to the Trojan cycle, surely one of the most commonly known periods within the classical canon both in Cavafy’s day and our own.5 Primarily this means I will be discussing Cavafy’s ongoing conversation with the two Homeric poems (the Iliad and the Odyssey). As part of this conversation, however, I will also briefly touch upon Cavafy’s interactions with the later tragic poets who treat the Homeric stories with their own spin, as well as the philosopher Plato who, like Cavafy, thought deeply about the significance of working within an inherited, yet constantly changing, literary tradition. Some of Cavafy’s most popular poems among contemporary readers are among this subset, possibly because their subject matter is so...