Sunday, March 9, 2014

Constantine P Cavafy - Poetry

The next poem up, is another one that I'm not familiar with.  Nor the poet, a Greek man named Constantine P. Cavafy.  I'm assuming that the poem is translated from Greek, though the notes don't say.  The name of the poem is 'Waiting for the Barbarians'.

What are we waiting for: packed in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn't anything going on in the senate?
Why have the senators give up legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
What's the point of senators and their laws now?
When the barbarians get here, they'll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor set out so early
to sit on his throne 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 citation to give him,
loaded with titles and imposing names.

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

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

And why don't our distinguished orators push 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 bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious everyone looks.)
Why are the streets and squares rapidly emptying,
everyone going home so lost in thought?

Because it's night and the barbarians haven't come.
And some people just in from the border say
there are barbarians no longer.

Now what's going to happen to us without them?
The barbarians were a kind of solution.

I'm not sure what to make of this poem.  Let me think it through and then I'll see if I can look up some info and get some background.  The barbarian theme is obviously important.  'Barbarian' loosely means 'not Greek' so the poet is talking about an invasion of the non Greeks.  It doesn't seem to mean a military invasion.  Cultural perhaps?  If so, then the emphasis on how the various kings, senators and orators snaps things into place.  All of these important people are helpless (and useless) in the face of an invading culture.
But then the invasion doesn't happen and all of the problems that the Greeks were facing are still their own.
Ok, let me look it up and see if I've got it right.  Well, Wikipedia is no help.  And general Google searches are swamped by the Coetzee novel of the same name.  I do find this New Yorker article which compares last summer's government shutdown to the poem.  The article suggests that the details are purposefully vague and points out that the poem doesn't even name the capitol city.  So maybe I leaned too heavily with the idea of Greeks and non Greeks.
It's an interesting poem, but it doesn't work for me as well as others on the list.


  1. I found this site ……. I'm not sure if it's what you are looking for:

    1. Cleo, thank you for the link. It is very helpful. I'm not sure that this poem is as rooted in a specific time as the article suggests, but I'm hardly the expert. The interpretation that the barbarians were needed to give the empire purpose is an interesting one. That isn't a thought that had occurred to me.