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Waiting for the barbarians

The events of these days reminded me of a poem by celebrated Greek poet Constantine Cavafy. It’s called “Waiting for the barbarians” and was written in December 1898. With this poem Cavafy actually describes the politicians of modern times and holds them responsible for the political, social and spiritual decay of modern Hellenism.

Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933)

The poem begins with a scene in the city market. All the inhabitants are concentrated there and waiting with great impatience the coming of the barbarians, who will save their dying city. The feeling of inaction is pervasive when political life is described and all evidence leads us to understand that this is a city decayed, corroded and ready to collapse. That’s why the people are longing for the coming of the barbarians as if they are the only solution for their salvation. However the barbarians are not appearing and a rumour spreads that the barbarians do not exist.

The news has causes great distress to the citizens who had placed all their hopes to the barbarians. The dying town waited for the barbarians as if they were a certain solution  in order to escape the degeneration, decadence and general resignation. People have absolutely no idea what happens in politics, which is deciding the future of their lives, and are kept in the dark. But with the cancellation of the barbarians’ arrival the last hope is lost. There remains now nothing but death.

Lena Platonos, a 60 year old woman who was among the Greek pioneers of electronic music in the 80s, wrote the music for several poems of Cavafy last year. Here’s the music for Waiting for the barbarians and below the poem itself with a couple of comments.

Waiting for the barbarians

-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 who have just returned 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.

Constantine P. Cavafy

For more about Cavafy, visit the official website of his archive. What I find very interesting about this poem is that it has many interpretations and it has fitted different kinds of situations. Cavafy speaks of the decadence of his times but it suits the current times perfectly. When Tony Blair tried to explain to the British people the necessity of taking part to the war in Iraq, in 2003, BBC’s Radio 4 devoted a whole program on this poem.