Leaving is intensely satisfying. That journey to a distant destination may well be the best part of a vacation; the taxi to the airport the happiest moment. Even leaving home to go to work to a job you hate carries with it possibilities for new outcomes, unobtainable if you call in sick and stay indoors. Always better to be the leaver than the left behind, the abandoner rather than the abandoned. Odysseus had a tough time, first fighting the Trojans and then encountering all manner of obstacles during his 10 year journey home. But at least he was experiencing novelty; poor Penelope spent those years just waiting and knitting.
There are many poems about leaving; here are four from the pen of four disparate poets. The first, by Constantine Cavafy, a Greek journalist and petty civil servant – a Byzantine Philip Larkin – writing in Alexandria in the latter part of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, his poems unpublished during his lifetime. The settings for his work are the warm, pagan sites of ancient Greece and Egypt, his characters mythological Gods, heroes of the Golden Age and perfumed Ottoman boys.
Here he deals with the very island in the Ionian Sea that was Odysseus’ destination, in this case perhaps a symbol for the hunger for life or ‘rare excitement’, without which we fail to live. To reach Ithaka, you have to leave Ithaka. Not everyone gets to leave Ithaka; not everyone wants to leave Ithaka; there are those that remain unimpressed by the sound of the outward bound.
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 you body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
Wild Poseidon – you wont 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 harbours 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 wont have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
You will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.
This next poem, ‘Christmas Day at Sea’, is by Robert L Stevenson, written in that unique style that seems to appeal to both young and old. Like D H Lawrence he was physically delicate, sought the sun and died young. Like Lawrence it took many years before his qualities as novelist, travel writer and poet were recognized. Between 1888 and 1890 he sailed the South Pacific finally settling on Opolu in the Samoan group of islands where he renamed himself “Tusitala” (Storyteller). “I wish”, he wrote, “to die in my boots; no more Land of the Counterpane for me.” He got his wish in December 1894. He had already written his own epitaph (1), which the Samoans translated and apparently still sing in the islands. The son of a lighthouse architect, Stevenson understood the difficult shores of England. Here a young sailor leaves home for the first time, the difficulty with which the ship beats away from a lee shore reflecting the pain of separation from the only life he knew. But we know, instinctively, that his was the hard but right decision.
The sheets were frozen hard, and they cut the naked hand;
The decks were like a slide where a seaman scarce could stand;
The wind was a nor-wester, blowing squally off the sea;
And the cliffs and spouting breakers were the only things a-lee.
They heard the surf a-roaring before the break of day;
But ‘twas only with the peep of light we saw how ill we lay.
We tumbled every hand on deck instanter, with a shout,
And we gave her the maintops’l, and stood by to go about.
All day we tacked and tacked between the South Head and the North;
All day we hauled the frozen sheets and got no further forth;
All day as cold as charity, in bitter pain and dread,
For every life and nature we tacked from head to head.
We gave the South a wider berth, for there the tide race roared;
But every tack we made brought the North Head close aboard:
So we saw the cliffs and houses and the breakers running high,
And the coastguard in his garden, with his glass against his eye.
The frost was on the village roofs as white as ocean foam;
The good red fires were burning bright in every long shore home;
The windows sparkled clear, and the chimneys volleyed out;
And I vow we sniffed the victuals as the vessel went about.
The bells upon the church were rung with a mighty jovial cheer;
For it’s just that I should tell you (of all the days in the year)
This day of our adversity was blessed Christmas morn,
And the house above the coastguard’s was the house where I was born.
O well I saw the pleasant room, the pleasant faces there,
My mother’s silver spectacles, my father’s silver hair;
And well I saw the firelight, like a flight of homely elves,
Go dancing round the china plates that stand upon the shelves.
And well I knew the talk they had, the talk that was of me,
Of the shadow on the household and the son that went to sea;
And O the wicked fool I seemed, in every kind of way
To be hauling frozen ropes on blessed Christmas Day.
They lit the high sea-light and the dark began to fall
“All hands to loose the top-gallant sails’ I heard the Captain call.
‘By the Lord, she’ll never stand it’ our first mate, Jackson, cried,
’It’s the one thing or the other, Mister Jackson’, he replied.
She staggered to her bearings, but the sails were new and good,
And the ship smelt up to windward, just as though she understood.
As the winter’s day was ending, in the entry of the night,
We cleared the weary headland, and passed below the light.
And they heaved a mighty breath, every soul on board but me,
As they saw her nose again pointing handsome out to sea;
But all that I could think of, in the darkness and the cold,
Was just that I was leaving home and my folks were growing old.
Rudyard Kipling is no longer popular, condemned by the politically correct for his subject of an Empire too recent to be held in the same regard as the Roman, his name now more commonly associated with mince pies. Nevertheless, in ‘The Feet of the Young Men’, he writes compellingly of the ‘Red Gods’ that call us from tepee, hut, house and condo in a pilgrimage of discovery.
He must go – go – go away from here!
On the other side the world he’s overdue.
‘Send your road is clear before you when the old
Spring-fret comes o’er you
And the Red Gods call for you!
It’s a longish poem and, apart from the above quoted refrain, I submit one verse only as a taster for Kipling’s description of the lure of a then, largely untraveled world.
So for one the wet sail arching through the rainbow round the bow,
And for one the creak of snow-shoes on the crust;
And for one the lakeside lilies where the bull-moose waits the cow,
And for one the mule-train coughing in the dust.
Who hath smelt wood-smoke at twilight? Who
hath heard the birch-log burning?
Who is quick to read the noises of the night?
Let him follow with the others, for the Young
Men’s feet are turning
To the camps of proved desire and known delight!
Can a poet, who spent most of her short life in the solitude of her bedroom, communicating largely by post, immersed in a herbarium, explain the excitement of leaving, of the ‘first league out from land’? In her poem ‘Exultation is the Going,’ frail, morbid, agoraphobic Emily Dickinson captures, and I can only use her own words, the ‘divine intoxication’ of departure. I understand that the devout Emily is referring to the passage of the soul after death, but I will take it for the metaphor she uses.
EXULTATION is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses, past the headlands,
Into deep eternity!
Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?
‘Ithaka’ is from C. P. Cavafy, Collected Poems, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard; Princeton University Press, 1975, 1992.
‘Christmas at Sea’ (as well as Requiem – Under the Wide & Starry Sky) are from ‘Poems by Robert Louis Stevenson’. Chatto & Windus; London, 1913.
‘The Feet of the Young Men’ is from ‘The Five Nations’ by Rudyard Kipling;
Methuen & Co. London, 1905
‘Exultation is the Going’ is from ‘The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson’; Little, Brown; Boston 1924
(1) Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the hunter home from the hill
And the sailor home from the sea.