Konstantinos Kavaphes was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents and lived in that cosmopolitan city for most of his life. The child of a prosperous cotton merchant who died when he was young, he spent much of his childhood in London and Manchester as his family struggled to keep their export-import business from bankruptcy. His family returned to Alexandria in 1877, and except for a brief exile in Constantinople during the 1882 Anglo-Egyptian War, he lived there for the rest of his life, working first as a journalist and then for thirty years as a clerk in the British colonial Ministry of Public Works. He wrote mainly in Greek, initially distributing his poems only to friends within the Greek community in Alexandria. The writer Grigorios Xenopoulos first introduced his poetry to the Greek literary world with a favorable review in 1903, but for the next two decades Kavaphes’ poetry was widely ignored or ridiculed by critics and readers unaccustomed to his deliberately prosaic style, his rejection of idealism, and his bold evocation of homosexual desire. A new generation of Greek poets and readers, disillusioned by Greek defeats in the Greco-Turkish War, began to find inspiration in his work in the early 1920s. Only with the publication of his collected poems in 1935, two years after his death, did Kavaphes begin to gain a reputation as a “new” voice in Greek poet. The novelist E.M. Forster first brought this the “Greek gentleman in a straw hat, standing absolutely motionless at a slight angle to the universe” to the attention of English readers in his essay “The Poetry of C.P. Cavafy” in 1919. The first English translation of his collected poems was published in 1951; since then his work has been widely translated, and Kavaphes has emerged as one of the most important Greek poets of the modern age.
This version of “Waiting for the Barbarians” was translated by renowned translator Richmond Lattirmore, originally appearing in The Kenyon Review in 1955. More recently, Kavaphes’ poem inspired a highly-influential novel entitled Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) by South African novelist J.M. Coetzee, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003. Both poem and novel have become central metaphors in literary responses to western colonialism and the war on terror.
Waiting for the Barbarians
(Translated by Richmond Lattimore)
Why are we all assembled and waiting in the market place?
It is the barbarians; they will be here today.
Why is there nothing being done in the senate house?
Why are the senators in session but are not passing laws?
Because the barbarians are coming today.
Why should the senators make laws any more?
The barbarians will make the laws when they get here.
Why has our emperor got up so early
and sits there at the biggest gate of the city
high on his throne, in state, and with his crown on?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and the emperor is waiting to receive them
and their general. And he has even made ready
a parchment to present them, and thereon
he has written many names and many titles.
Why have our two consuls and our praetors
Come out today in their red embroidered togas?
Why have they put on their bracelets with all those amethysts
and rings shining with the glitter of emeralds?
Why will they carry their precious staves today
which are decorated with figures of gold and silver?
Because the barbarians are coming today
And things like that impress the barbarians.
Why do our good orators not put in any appearance
and make public speeches, and do what they generally do?
Because the barbarians are coming today
and they get bored with eloquent public speeches.
Why is everybody beginning to be so uneasy?
Why so disordered? (See how grave all the faces have
become!) Why do the streets and the squares empty so quickly,
and they are all anxiously going home to their houses?
Because it is night, and the barbarians have not got here,
and some people have come in from the frontier
and say that there aren’t any more barbarians.
What are we going to do now without the barbarians?
In a way, those people were a solution.
With its direct language and simple form, this poem is highly effective for use in a high school classroom or with students new to the study of poetry.
Kavaphes builds the poem’s underlying sense of irony using a plain style, stripped of all ornament, and the structuring device of repeated questions and answers. The poem reads almost like a catechism, or the insistent questions a child might ask his parent as he tries to make sense of the strange political ceremonies he sees in the market place as the city prepares for the arrival of its new rulers. Yet the fact that there is only one speaker in this poem serves only to deepen the irony: the poem is an internal dialogue, reflecting the sense of unreality we all feel as we watch our own national political rituals. Reading the poem, we become like the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” seeing clearly what the rituals of power and the ideology of fear seek to hide from us. While the poem may initially seem to take the form of a dialogue, it is in fact built on a series of realizations that move from the simple to the hidden, from stating the obvious to glimpsing the underlying fears and needs that distort our public life.
The poet Robert Pinsky has written:
In this cunning, amusing poem, with its punch line that never wears out, the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy penetrates deep into the nature of political life. The atmosphere of civic pride and civic hypocrisy, the mingled air of awe and contempt toward governmental institutions, rings not the bell of cliché but many eerie tintinnabulations: the gongs and chimes of public life, the distinct sounds of what we say, what we know we mean and what we don’t know we mean.
At the beginning of the poem, “what we say” could hardly be clearer: the barbarians are arriving, and everything will change. The poem’s setting is classical, with an emperor on the throne and consuls and praetors in the red embroidered togas. Kavaphes appears to draw upon his family’s historical origins in Constantinople – the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium that became the center of the Byzantine Empire (the Greek-speaking Eastern Roman Empire throughout late Antiquity and the Middle Ages) and fell to the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1453. Yet the revelation at the end of the poem – what Pinsky calls “its punch line that never wears out” – suggests a modern self-awareness about the role that fear plays in our political unconscious.
Barbarian, in its Greek root, suggests an unidentified enemy, anyone who does not speak your language or share your cultural ideals. (One possible origin of the Greek word barbaros is the speculation that foreign languages sounded like gibberish – the repetition of the nonsense syllables bar, bar, bar – to Greek ears.) But the word’s implications are much broader: barbarians are those who lack culture, who cannot be understood, but also cannot understand, cannot attain higher reason. “Things like that impress the barbarians,” the poem’s speaker observes with condescension, “and they get bored with eloquent public speeches.” But the poem’s conclusion should make us ask the question that remains unspoken throughout the poem: Who are the real barbarians here? Who fails to understand what really motivates their actions?
Every empire needs enemies to justify its existence: when one enemy is defeated or simply disappears, it is necessary to create new figures of terror with which to threaten the population. The anxiety that sweeps through the city at the end of the poem suggests this realization; there is no sense of relief that they will not be conquered by the barbarians, only the terror of finding themselves suddenly alone, with no enemy to embody – or solve – their problems. Like Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, the poem reveals the ways in which we depend upon our self-deceptions to protect us from having to take responsibility for ourselves.
- What is the situation in the poem? What historical background does it draw upon? Who are the barbarians? Does it matter who they are?
- What does the word barbarian suggest? What is its origin? (Send a student to the dictionary to look it up.)
- How would you describe the poem’s speaker? What kind of language and sentence structure does the poem use? What effect does repetition create in the poem? Why might a poet choose to write a poem based on questions and answers? How does that shape a reader’s response to the poem?
- Does the poem’s language change at any point? Where? Look at stanzas 5-7. How does the sentence structure change here? Does the poem’s language seem to change in stanza 7? Why? Could there be a connection between the decorations that these officials wear to impress the barbarians and the change in the poem’s language? What effect does this change have on the reader?
- Where did you first sense that the poem’s tone might be ironic? What creates that sense of irony, given the simple language and structure of the poem?
- How can we make sense of the change in tone in the last three stanzas? Why do the people begin to feel anxious? Why might they be frightened by learning that the barbarians aren’t coming? Why are they so eager to surrender? What did they hope for from the barbarians?
- Does the poem reverse your expectations? Why? What effect does that have on your understanding?
- Can we answer the poem’s final question: “What are we going to do without the barbarians?” What does the final line suggest to you? How, exactly, were the barbarians a solution?
- The historian Barbara Tuchman described history as “a distant mirror.” What does a poem like this, set in a distant time, reflect about our own time or our own culture?
- Does every culture need barbarians? Why? What purpose do they serve for us?
Creative Writing Exercise
Instructors for KR’s Young Writers workshop use “Waiting for the Barbarians” as the basis for a simple creative writing prompt for new writers. The poem contains a series of evocative lines and phrases which provide students with a launching point for new writing of their own. The exercise is highly interactive and quickly generates enthusiasm among groups of students.
“Waiting for the Barbarians” Creative Assignment
Start with a few minutes of freewriting.
Read Konstantinos Kavaphes’ “Waiting for the Barbarians.” Read it around the circle two times, first time sentence by sentence; second time, line by line. Then choose lines or words that you think are interesting or significant and toss them (figuratively) into the center of the room when it seems appropriate, building a new poem as you go. Another way of looking at this is that you are talking to each other about the poem using only words from the text.
Write. Take one line from “Waiting for the Barbarians” and use it as a springboard for a poem of your own. You must begin your poem with the line from “Waiting…” If there is time, take another line and try the exercise again.
The instructor will call everyone together and begin rereading “Waiting…” aloud. When the instructor reads the line you chose, interrupt the reading by reading your poem. (This is one of the few times that talking over someone in class is not only encouraged but is necessary.) The instructor and workshop participants continue this exercise until everyone has read.
Reflective Writing: Respond in writing to the experience of exploring the poem in this way. What was this experience like for you? What happened as you read, wrote, listened, and spoke