Greek Poet

Sharpening the Lens Cavafy Style

Poem Review
Together we wait…
[Source – Pixabay]

Waiting for the Barbarians

By C. P. Cavafy

Translated by Edmund Keeley

*

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.


Steady like a statue.
[Source – Pixabay]

Waiting to take a stand, sitting comfortably, letting the waves cover with silt our body, mind and soul, we continue waiting, living.

Glaring caustically at the silt, we regurgitate pompously.

Unable to cross the maze, we burn the walls down, unable to touch the sky, we pull it to the ground.

Waiting for them to distinguish between the truth and hearsay, to dust off our earnest intentions, to demystify our vision, we humbly stretch and wait.

In waiting for an autonomous lustrous life, we steadily pass by, dulling our society.


C. P. Cavafy, “a Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe” (as per his friend E. M. Forester), wrote the poem “Waiting for Barbarians” in 1904, juxtaposing the past with our modern thoughts, superimposing the ancient image on the now, yes the now, swiftly jolting the reader from slumber and questioning “this wait”.

*

The leaders in ancient Greece, the poem shows, await desperately, in static opulence, for the Barbarians to come and take over everything and to begin mending every disaster, but when they don’t come, the city dwellers are aghast as now they will have to tackle problems and take decisions on their own.

And so the free individual, waiting for an external source to revitalise the life, takes a dip in the bright, glittering mirage, dreading, complaining, ignoring, barricading, adjusting all the while, and refusing to end “the wait”.

But let us not wait anymore…


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