Waiting for the Barbarians – C. P. Cavafy

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.

________________

Reprinted from C.P. CAVAFY: Collected Poems Revised Edition, translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, edited by George Savidis. Translation copyright © 1975, 1992 by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton University Press

A portrait of Constantine Cavafy by Greek painter Nikos Engonopoulos
A portrait of Constantine Cavafy by Greek painter Nikos Engonopoulos

C.P. Cavafy born on April 29, 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, where he died on the same day in 1933. Constantine Cavafy is the leading poet of the periphery, writing in Greek far from Greek lands.

Constantine P. Cavafy was one of the most original and influential Greek poets of the 20th century, who, though, remained virtually unrecognized in Greece until late in his career. Nowadays, his poetry is widely celebrated and taught in school in Greece and Cyprus, as well as in universities around the world.

Cavafy wrote 155 poems, while dozens more remained incomplete or in sketch form.  His work draws on his extensive knowledge about the Hellenistic era, which is why he describes himself as a “poet-historian”. Many of his poems are pseudo-historical, or seemingly historical. Some of the defining themes of his poetry is uncertainty about the future, sensual pleasures, the moral character and psychology of individuals, homosexuality, and nostalgia.

His poems often feature historical figures or creations of the poet’s imagination, with frequent references to familiar or less familiar elements of Homeric, Hellenistic, and Byzantine years. Today his poetry comprises a discrete pole in Greek literature, and he enjoys a prominent place in world literature as well.

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