I enjoy the periodic notes I receive from my readers; it’s nice to know that someone appreciates my thoughts. Recently I received a question from a reader, “Dr. Joe, I read the poem Thermopylae by Constance Cavafy you used as a literary reference. I didn’t get it!” I fired off a reply, “Read me next week,” I said.
Thermopylae is one of two favorite poems of mine. The other is Ithaca, also by Cavafy. I am guilty! I reference them often. Both, in their own way possess the secret of life. Asking a question about poetry is like asking for the time of day and then being told how to build a clock.
I often experience the phenomenon déjà when a thought or place seems much too familiar. To have lived many lives and to realize there are many more to come is an attractive perspective from which to judge life’s messages. Reincarnation offers a hint relative to the miracle of déjà vu.
To understand the poem you first have to understand history. When boyhood’s fire was in my blood, I read of ancient free men in Greece where 300 Spartans guarded the pass Thermopylae. I had this uncanny feeling that I was there with King Leonidas of Sparta defending the pass against Xerxes’ Immortals.
There is a myriad of meaningful thoughts strategically placed within Cavafy’s verse.
“Honor to those who in the life they lead define and guard a Thermopylae.
Never betraying what is right, consistent and just in all they do,
but showing pity also, and compassion;
Generous when they’re rich, and when they’re poor, still generous in small ways, still helping as much as they can;
Always speaking the truth, yet without hating those who lie.
And even more honor is due to them when they foresee (as many do foresee) that Epilates will turn up in the end, and that the Medes will break through after all.”
Thermopylae is about courage and honor exhibited in one of the greatest stories ever told and validates those who fought heroically to the end even knowing that they were doomed. Theirs is a unique sense of honor.
Thermopylae defines the heroic life and is metaphorically linked to that which brings meaning and depth to our lives. Living the heroic life thus becomes our guide. What is your Thermopylae? How do you define it? Perhaps these are salient questions to be answered in 2014.
In its brevity, Thermopylae reminds us to stick to our guns and live a life that’s meaningful and principled. Its messages about honor and loyalty, the qualities a soldier should possess are of essence.
Cavafy takes us away from the battle and tells us to be consistent to rightfulness, to be compassionate and generous no matter our circumstance, and be truthful in all that we do. We are told not hate those who don’t live by the same principles or who wrong us for we should not begrudge them their own perspectives. He’s defining the heroic life through another dimension.
The final lines tell us that life has setbacks and potential for failure. Epilates was the goat herder who betrayed the Spartans by leading the Persians/Medes through an old trail, which allowed the latter to encircle and outflank the defenders. The Spartans knew they had no chance, but they stayed and fought anyway.
More honor is due to them when they foresee… that Epilates will turn up in the end, and that the Medes will break through after all.
No matter how noble a life is lived, no one can ultimately prevent the Greek traitor, Epilates enabling the Medes to break through. We all have our Thermopylae and to live a life of honor we guard it! Cavafy tells us that in the heroic life we soldier on as the Spartans did.