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Alexandria & Cavafy

   
 

Life's a Trip!

   

 

  

 

Alexander the Great founded the great cosmopolitan city by the sea known as Alexandria in 331 BCE.  Cleopatra reigned as its Queen and both Caesar and Napoleon conquered the Egyptian metropolis.  Its famed Lighthouse was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World and its great Library, the first to collect texts from beyond a nation's borders, was destroyed - and this story of destruction itself is lost in the myths of time.  It is a poetic, atmospheric cosmopolis - Lawrence Durrell famously paid homage to it in the marvelous Alexandria Quartet.  

Home to historically large Greek, Jewish, Italian, French, and Egyptian populations, Alexandria also gave birth to Constantine Cavafy, one of the great poets of the twentieth century.  Cavafy was a perfect emblem of his native city - a proponent of tolerance and humanism whose elegant Greek poetry was tinged with melancholy and a love of beauty. 

Cavafy's famous poem The Barbarians, is a parable for our times, suggesting as it does that one look within for an answer.  But it is perhaps Ithaka that most beautifully reflects the sensual qualities of his native Alexandria, a city of ancient streets facing onto the Mediterranean blue. 

Using Ulysses's voyage in The Odyssey as a starting point, Cavafy extols the idea of life as a voyage of discovery and infinite delight.  An epicurean to the core, he counsels the reader to take his time and to enjoy life's sensual pleasures: 

may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things, 
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind

Cavafy's sage counsel to enjoy the moment and to value the journey in life seems like the perfect antidote to an increasingly complex world: 

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 

 

Read: C.P. Cavafy Collected Poems , tr. by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard   

 

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