Waiting for the Barbarians

Waiting for the Barbarians
What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

       The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

       Because the barbarians are coming today.
       What's the point of senators making laws now?
       Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early, 
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city's main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

       Because the barbarians are coming today
       and the emperor's waiting to receive their leader.
       He's even got a scroll to give him, 
       loaded with titles, with imposing names.

Why have our two consuls and praetors come out today
wearing their embroidered, their scarlet togas?
Why have they put on bracelets with so many amethysts,
rings sparkling with magnificent emeralds?
Why are they carrying elegant canes
beautifully worked in silver and gold?

       Because the barbarians are coming today
       and things like that dazzle the barbarians.

Why don't our distinguished orators turn up as usual
to make their speeches, say what they have to say?

       Because the barbarians are coming today
       and they're bored by rhetoric and public speaking.

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people's faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

       Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven't come.
       And some of our men just in from the border say
       there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.
C. P. Cavafy

Source for both 'Waiting for the Barbarians' and the excerpt from 'One Night': C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1975)

Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Translation Copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press.
C. P. Cavafy

C.P. Cavafy was born in Alexandria, where he spent all his life except for seven years at school in England. His parents were Greek, from Constantinople. He published two privately printed pamphlets in 1904 and 1910, but his reputation among Anglophone readers was achieved through his long friendship with E.M. Forster. New translations of his lyrical, conversational poems continue to attract readers, and 'Waiting for the Barbarians' is perhaps his most famous and frequently translated poem.


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About Waiting for the Barbarians

Introduced by a variety of writers, artists and other guests, the Scottish Poetry Library’s classic poem selections are a reminder of wonderful poems to rediscover.

J. L. Williams on 'Waiting for the Barbarians':

In July 2009, I was the grateful recipient of an Edwin Morgan Travel Bursary from the Scottish Arts Trust. The bursary made it possible for me to spend a few weeks on Salina, one of the volcanic Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily, writing a collection of poetry inspired by Ovid's Metamorphoses. As part of my research in preparation for the trip I read the work of C. P. Cavafy.

Cavafy was born in Alexandria in 1863. He was cosmopolitan, homosexual, of illustrious ancestry, proud of both his Greek and Alexandrian heritage and, as the family had lost its fortunes, a hard worker who held a day job for thirty years as a clerk while he wrote and published poems not as books but in journals, periodicals and annuals and then in small, privately published broadsheets that he distributed. His friend, E.M. Forster, was responsible for bringing his work to an English-speaking audience via translations by George Valassopoulo, leading to eventual publication by T.S. Eliot, among others.

Cavafy's most famous poem, and one of my favourites, is 'Waiting for the Barbarians'. What some describe as a 'flat' style of writing is the epitome of clarity in all its richness, an accurate description of an event that becomes potent and poetical not because of metaphoric flair or romantic obscurity but because the observation of the key moment is vital. The objectivity of the poet as viewer (even when participating) and the exactitude of description allow the reader into the poem as present witness. Restraint in the language pushes certain words to the fore, such as the word 'dazzle' (translated variously as 'marvel'), which increases in power against the starkness of the linguistic topography of the poem.

Cavafy was a tenacious self-editor and cut vast amounts of material out of his drafts as he honed them to their final, perfected form – replete with what J.A. Sareyannis called the "suggestiveness which the poet loved so much".

It is surprising that in some commentaries on Cavafy's writing the explicit style -meticulous, balanced and over-arching, an equivalent to the highest examples of classical art and architecture - is criticised as lacking in expressive beauty.

It is through its hardness, its relentless honesty and generalising, repetitive, physically accurate but unadorned descriptions of love, desire and sex that the impact of the existential and often sorrowful themes of loss and memory penetrate. His fine, unromanticised style permits the reader to relate to the poems in a way that does not force or colour the experience of the poem and even when recounting intimate events does not cast the reader in the role of voyeur.

Also something important about this type of writing and what may be the most effective poetry is its ability, through description and metaphor, to move outside of narrative or 'time-line' history. It is often via accuracy (or, as its alter, extreme obscurity) that this movement can be achieved. So for instance when Cavafy, in his poem 'One Night', says:

And there on that common, humble bed
I had love's body, had those intoxicating lips,
red and sensual,
red lips of such intoxication
that now as I write, after so many years,
in my lonely house, I'm drunk with passion again. 

it is not the original way that he has portrayed his lover's lips that is striking, but the simplicity and universality of the description. So many lovers could be described in this way, and this expands the emotion Cavafy conveys to include that of anyone who has ever longed in their loneliness for the lips of a lost, unforgettable lover. The poem embraces all lovers' intoxicating lips, sublimates the very notion of a lover's lips as intoxicating, and embodies a verity of human emotion that extends beyond assumed boundaries of time and space.

Similarly the barbarians, the statesmen and the general public in 'Waiting for the Barbarians' are every society and the poem has a resonance beyond its historical context. It speaks of how society is so often dependent on that which it excludes. As a homosexual, a fallen aristocrat, a man of various homelands and a poet Cavafy was well-placed to comment on this subject; one as relevant today as it was in Cavafy's time and at the dawn of civilisation.

As I set out on my own voyage with the question of how to express change consuming my attention, it is a collection of Cavafy's work that I will carry with me along with my copy of the Metamorphoses. There is much to learn about the meaning of timelessness from Cavafy's work, and Ovid's great insight into change was that it is always happening. It is essential to our very being.

Read more about J. L. Williams