THE WORLD WAS ALL BEFORE THEM
The highlight of the school year was Graduation – a ceremony to mark the end of post-primary education for our Leaving Cert students. But it was much more. It was the official recognition that the children who arrived in the school 5 or 6 years earlier were now adults. Graduation marked their transition to independence, their impending departure to work or further education and their first steps away from home. Consequently, it was an emotional time for all of us.
The students, who had longed for independence and an end to the restrictions of schooling, became nostalgic, conscious of this momentous occasion in their lives. It was gradually dawning on them that independence would have consequences. The bonds and camaraderie that had been formed in these Leaving Cert classes over 5 or 6 years would now dissolve as they went their separate ways. The security of home and the constant attention of loving parents would dissipate. Above all, there was the new challenge of mapping their own fates in the world that was now all before them.
Parents, too, sensed that things would never be the same again. Though their responsibilities were far from over, once their sons and daughters left home in September, relationships would be different. Childhood was over and empty nests awaited them.
As teachers we felt both happy and sad. We had seen these delicate ducklings, that came to us as innocent and insecure 12-year-olds in their brand-new uniforms, morph into elegant swans. Having cast aside their well-worn uniforms, they now appeared before us in their splendid, new finery as beautiful young women and suave young men – radiant on the night. Such glamour, such colour, such confidence. The transition was awe-inspiring.
In Sonnet 15 Shakespeare, reflecting on the passing of time, wrote: “everything that grows holds in perfection but a little moment”. For me this was one of those occasions. The old world was dying and the new world beaconed. They were standing on the threshold, dressed for a great adventure, ready for the journey.
It was John Milton, the great Puritan poet and author of Paradise Lost, who first wrote the words:
The world was all before them,
Where to choose
Their place of rest and
Providence their guide:
They hand in hand, with
Wandering steps and slow,
Through Eden took their solitary way.
Adam and Eve were residents of Paradise without fully realising what they had. They became dissatisfied and wanted more. They wanted independence. God gave them their wish and so, “the world was all before them”. But, would they be happier in their new world? The Tanakh, as the Jews call the Old Testament, maps the journey of they and their descendants in the centuries that followed. Unfortunately, it does not make for cheerful reading. As my mother often said, in her more sombre moments, what can you expect in this “vale of tears”?
However, not everybody sees life this way. Before they graduated, I often gave my English classes a copy of a poem by the Greek writer, CP Cavafy. It is called “Ithaka” after the Greek island that was the home of Ulysses. In Homer’s epic poem, Ulysses goes off to fight the Trojan War. Twenty years pass before he returns to his estate and family at Ithaka.
Drawing on the metaphor of life as a sea voyage, Cavafy advises the traveller on what to do – to seek adventure, make new discoveries, avoid danger and distractions. Above all to enjoy the journey, not being over conscious of the final destination.
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 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 marvellous 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.
Another poet who drew inspiration from Homer’s epic was the Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson. In his poem, Ulysses, the poet describes the discontent and restlessness that Ulysses experiences after he arrives home in Ithaka. (Among other things, the poor man had to slay a 100 suitors who fancied his wife, Penelope). Clearly, retirement doesn’t suit him. He longs for more adventure on the high seas and speaks to his fellow sailors in this poem. His words are an inspiration to those who will not go quietly, who refuse to abandon hope and who have the courage expressed by Samuel Beckett in more recent times: “I can’t go on. I will go on.”
Come, my friends,
‘T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Writing a century later, the Belfast poet, Louis MacNiece, expressed similar sentiments in his poem, Thalassa. It is a rallying call for the reader to take on the great adventure of life regardless of his or her personal limitations, failings or fears. The world is all before us so, let’s go!
Run out the boat, my broken comrades;
Let the old seaweed crack, the surge
Burgeon oblivious of the last
Embarkation of feckless men,
Let every adverse force converge –
Here we must needs embark again.
Run up the sail, my heartsick comrades;
Let each horizon tilt and lurch –
You know the worst: your wills are fickle,
Your values blurred, your hearts impure
And your past life a ruined church –
But let your poison be your cure.
Put out to sea, ignoble comrades,
Whose records shall be noble yet;
Butting through scarps of moving marble
The narwal dares us to be free;
By a high star our course is set,
Our end is life. Put out to sea,