Cavafy’s “Ithaka” and Auden’s “Atlantis”

I recently read one of Auden’s relatively lesser-known poems, Atlantis, and was struck by the similarities it bears to C.P. Cavafy’s famous Ithaka. In both poems, life is described through the metaphor of an eventful voyage to a destination that belongs more in the realm of Greek mythology than in the real world. References to history and mythology, and that curious blending of the two, are scattered liberally throughout both. And both use the similar rhetorical device of directly addressing the reader, and drawing him into the world of the poem, and the voyage, by constantly asking him to imagine various hypothetical scenarios. Here are the two poems set out in full:

Ithaka

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 harbors 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 marvelous 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.

Atlantis

Being set on the idea
Of getting to Atlantis,
You have discovered of course
Only the Ship of Fools is
Making the voyage this year,
As gales of abnormal force
Are predicted, and that you
Must therefore be ready to
Behave absurdly enough
To pass for one of The Boys,
At least appearing to love
Hard liquor, horseplay and noise.

Should storms, as may well happen,
Drive you to anchor a week
In some old harbour-city
Of Ionia, then speak
With her witty sholars, men
Who have proved there cannot be
Such a place as Atlantis:
Learn their logic, but notice
How its subtlety betrays
Their enormous simple grief;
Thus they shall teach you the ways
To doubt that you may believe.

If, later, you run aground
Among the headlands of Thrace,
Where with torches all night long
A naked barbaric race
Leaps frenziedly to the sound
Of conch and dissonant gong:
On that stony savage shore
Strip off your clothes and dance, for
Unless you are capable
Of forgetting completely
About Atlantis, you will
Never finish your journey.

Again, should you come to gay
Carthage or Corinth, take part
In their endless gaiety;
And if in some bar a tart,
As she strokes your hair, should say
“This is Atlantis, dearie,”
Listen with attentiveness
To her life-story: unless
You become acquainted now
With each refuge that tries to
Counterfeit Atlantis, how
Will you recognise the true?

Assuming you beach at last
Near Atlantis, and begin
That terrible trek inland
Through squalid woods and frozen
Thundras where all are soon lost;
If, forsaken then, you stand,
Dismissal everywhere,
Stone and now, silence and air,
O remember the great dead
And honour the fate you are,
Travelling and tormented,
Dialectic and bizarre.

Stagger onward rejoicing;
And even then if, perhaps
Having actually got
To the last col, you collapse
With all Atlantis shining
Below you yet you cannot
Descend, you should still be proud
Even to have been allowed
Just to peep at Atlantis
In a poetic vision:
Give thanks and lie down in peace,
Having seen your salvation.

All the little household gods
Have started crying, but say
Good-bye now, and put to sea.
Farewell, my dear, farewell: may
Hermes, master of the roads,
And the four dwarf Kabiri,
Protect and serve you always;
And may the Ancient of Days
Provide for all you must do
His invisible guidance,
Lifting up, dear, upon you
The light of His countenance.

Despite the many obvious similarities between the two poems, I think it’s interesting also to analyse the seemingly different world-view that they present. At the end of Cavafy’s piece, one feels a sense of closure, of conclusion. The voyage to Ithaka is clearly a metaphor for a life lived well and fully, with death the final homecoming. The events on the way, with the many beautiful images and descriptions that Cavafy draws upon, accentuate the experience, deepen it and enrich it. There is, in short, no doubt about the message (if that is the right word) that the poem is trying to convey.

Atlantis, on the other hand, is profoundly ambiguous every step of the way. The ambiguity is established in the first stanza, when it is clarified that the only ship making the journey to Atlantis is “the Ship of Fools”. The Ship of Fools, of course, is a famous allegory of the human condition, one that depicts a ship without a pilot, populated by insane passengers, and traveling without any sense of direction (see, for instance, this beautiful painting by Hieronymus Bosch). This suggests that Atlantis itself may be an illusion, nothing more than a mythical paradise that is the figment of a fevered imagination. The impression is heightened by the second stanza, where the scholars’ subtle arguments is a facade designed to hide their “simple, enormous grief“. What is this simple, enormous grief? It is, I think, something akin to the Byronic lament that man’s greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection that he can never attain. Similarly, the Ionian scholars’ ceaseless attempts to prove the non-existence of Atlantis perhaps stem from their grief at the unattainability of Atlantis. Atlantis, then, is ideal and perfection – to use a closer analogy, it is the ever-receding shoreline that Virgil’s Aeneas is constantly pursuing. And if that is the case, then it makes perfect sense why only a ship of fools would undertake that journey.

The next stanza adds another aspect of detail to the quest for Atlantis: it cannot be a conscious quest. Notice, however, that the poet does not write that you will find Atlantis if you forget about it. He writes that “unless you are capable/ of forgetting completely/ about Atlantis, you will/ Never complete your journey.” At no point is it written that the journey must necessarily end by finding Atlantis. This, of course, dovetails perfectly with the idea that Atlantis is actually unattainable. Not an illusion, mind, nor a myth, but something very real and worth striving for, although one is doomed never to achieve it.   

The next stanza, in fact, makes it clear that whatever else Atlantis is, it is something very real. The Atlantis that is being “counterfeited” by the prostitute is set up in contradistinction to the “true” – or, to put it another way, “the real“. This sense of Atlantis as an existing goal is reinforced by the next two stanzas that, I feel, constitute the heart of the poem. The first demonstrates the perils of chasing the ideal – it is a path fraught with continuous danger and nigh-impassable obstacles, and the constant fear of getting lost down trackless ways (of what? of failure? Is that what he means when he uses the word “dismissal”?).But the voyager can take heart from the fact that his companions in this fate are the “great dead”, men and women who, in the history of mankind, have striven for something similar. Notice now the contrast between “the ship of fools” that is meant to undertake the voyage, and the “great dead” that seem to have actually undertaken the voyage before. It is fascinating that Auden here chooses to use the word “dialectic”. Dialectic between what? It is anybody’s guess, but I feel that Auden is referring to the tension between the existence of the ideal as something intrinsically worth striving for, and the impossibility of attaining it.

In the penultimate stanza, the final fate of the voyager is made clear. He gets all the way until the edge of Atlantis, having come all this way in a ship of fools, and braved terrible dangers to arrive here; and at the very cusp of the fulfillment of his heart’s desire, he finds that his strength has given out, that he cannot even descend to claim what he has traveled so far for. And yet, that doesn’t really matter, because you have, after all, been permitted to catch a glimpse of Atlantis. But notice that it is no ordinary glimpse – it is a “poetic vision“. Suddenly, the stable ground has slipped away from under our feet – does this mean that Atlantis is unreal after all, and an illusion, if it does not even exist in a way that can be seen – or rather, grasped – through the senses? Perhaps not. Perhaps this is Auden at his most Byronic – seeing Atlantis in a poetic vision represents the ability to concretely conceptualise the impossible ideal, an ability that manifests itself only at the end of a lifetime of striving after that very ideal that one cannot even know, let alone begin to understand.

All of which seems to suggest that what is of paramount importance is not Atlantis itself – since it can never be attained – but the voyage to Atlantis. And indeed, that is what the last stanza seems to indicate, in what is perhaps a tip of the hat to Cavafy. Hermes, master of the roads, and “the four dwarf Kabiri” are invoked to bless – not the attainment of the destination – but the voyage. The last stanza is about setting out to sea, the beginning of the voyage, and what it seems to be paramountly concerned with is the voyage itself.

And this, indeed, is very close to what Cavafy is seeking to convey through Ithaka. Consider last two stanzas:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous 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.

And so, the most important thing is not getting to Ithaka; indeed, that seems positively inconsequential. Ithaka is the centrepiece of the poem not because of what it is, but because of what it provides a reason to do – that is, to take the voyage, the glorious voyage with all its detours  to Phoenican trading stations (with sensual perfumes!) and Egyptian cities. 

This suggests that the themes of the two poems are not as far apart as they may originally have seemed to be. What is interesting is how the two poets employ radically different styles to achieve a similar kind of response. Cavafy’s is clear and direct, with a succession of striking images following one another in a logical sequence, speaking directly to the imagination; while Auden’s is complex and layered, with ambiguity piled upon ambiguity, and you must peel off the layers of seeming paradoxes and inconsistencies to arrive at the heart of the poet’s vision.

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4 Comments

Filed under C.P. Cavafy, Modernism: Second Generation, Poetry: Miscellaneous, W.H. Auden

4 responses to “Cavafy’s “Ithaka” and Auden’s “Atlantis”

  1. Brian Joseph

    I really like your analysis of these works. I had never read these poems before. I like both and their themes are of course subjects that interest me a great deal.

    I like Auden’s work a little more for several reasons including its complexity.

  2. Irpinder

    Thanks for sharing the poems and the analysis. Both the poem are a telling metaphor of the journey.
    Atlantis is much more compelling for its underlying pathos and grief, commands much more breadth and is more complex as Brian Joseph shares.

    Here is a completely different take on life; nothing akin to a journy/voyage towards an end. It comes from the Nathpanthi poet Gorakhnath. Gorakh gets it from Buddha.

    “In the empty fort is the city and in the empty city the habitaion……”

  3. In a recent discussion I attributed to Auden ‘Ithaka’- then of course remembered Journey to Atlantis, many pieces of which I used to know by heart. Well, beauty exists, notwithstanding all.

  4. bthayesesq

    Both works are obviously in the same vein as Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” as well.

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