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Waiting for the Barbarians -- Constantine Cavafy

Guest poem submitted by Zubaer Mahboob:
(Poem #1056) Waiting for the Barbarians
 What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

 Why isn't anything happening in the senate?
 Why do the senators sit there without legislating?

      Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What laws can the senators make now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they'll do the legislating.

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

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.
      He has even prepared a scroll to give him,
      replete 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,
 and 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 come forward 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 restlessness, this confusion?
 (How serious people's faces have become.)
 Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
 everyone going home so lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.
      And some who have just returned from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

 And now, what's going to happen to us without barbarians?
 They were, those people, a kind of solution.
-- Constantine Cavafy
Translated by Edmund Keeley.

An empire awaits its end, its ruling class awash in all the trappings of
opulence but rudderless without a guiding moral compass, and dissipating
under the weight of boredom and finery. Cavafy's poem tells hauntingly of
the ultimate hollowness of tyranny - an apt theme for our times. The
novelist JM Coetzee adopted the title of this poem for his 1982 novel
"Waiting for the Barbarians", a scantily-veiled denunciation of the
apartheid regime. If you enjoy the mythical landscape of this poem, you
might also enjoy the vivid imaginary empire created in that book.


[Minstrels Links]

Constantine Cavafy:
Poem #217, Ithaka
Poem #296, Footsteps
Poem #522, In Harbor

44 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Robert Kedney said...

This poem has been used by American Socialists to justify paring the
Defense establishment of the United States; though the events of 11
September 2001 clearly point there are an endless number of barbarians
outside the gates.

A quote from Hamlet (Act V, scene II) best characterizes the
need to prepare to defend the nation: "there's a special providence in
the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to
come, it will be now, if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness
is all."

One thing the author never addresses is how does one deal
with the barbarians born within the walls - those who have been
convinced by American Socialists - that they are entitled to have their
fellow citizens to take care of them.


Anil Menon said...

There's a classic essay by Antonio Candido that discusses this poem
with some insight.

"Four Waitings", Antonio Candido (tr. Howard S. Becker), Sociological
Theory, Vol 10, No. 1 (1992), pp. 21-42.

It's probably worth adding that the essay is not about past or current
American foreign policy, though of course, it could be read that way.

Candido (citing Bowra) mentions several co-temporaneous poems (40s,
50s) with the same theme. Valery Briusov's "The Arrival of the Huns"
and Stefen George's "The Burning of the Temple."

Arthur Herman's "The Idea of Decline in Western History" is a good
antidote to these doom 'n gloom poets.

--Anil Menon

Petros Vourloumis said...

I appreciate that my comment is about a decade old but I thought it might still be relevant.

@Robert Kedney. Please don't try to directly translate Cavafy into today's (or any day's) narrow-minded and flawed political rhetoric, especially US rhetoric since it is the country whose rulers, elected or not, always easily abandon ancient values in favour of easy profit. In fact, this poem does not characterise the barbarians, rather the cynically idle people waiting for them to arrive. These are your true barbarians and their inability to see the truth for what it is and change their lives for the better. They are hopelessly waiting the be salvaged by the arrival of some barbarians, who either don't arrive at all or who are mirrored images of those they are meant to replace, hence the conclusion "They were, those people, a kind of solution". You want to find the barbarians inside the walls? Look in the mirror.

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