Cavafy’s Greek is a very carefully modulated, spoken Greek, with occasional usages of katharevousa, or “purified.” This “purified” language was a nineteenth century attempt to give the Greeks a common, official language and overcome the difficulties brought about by the many local dialects. Artificial and hardly used except in official documents, it was far more formal than the demotic (spoken) language of even the educated. However, Cavafy’s uses, limited as they were, added to the gravity of his poetry, giving those poems an additional level of seriousness.

Above all, Cavafy is concrete and imagistic in his use of language, avoiding abstractions. He rarely uses figures of speech, which makes the poetry plain on its surface, but this “plainness” adds an element of the dramatic. He sometimes employs a formal pattern, often an iambic meter, as well as rhymes; these metrical patterns offer a music to the poems but they are also an element of their meaning.

The “historical” poems make up most of Cavafy’s mature poetry; indeed, Cavafy felt that, other than being a poet, he could have been an historian. His poems are not, however, limited to or by historical fact; he may give the feel of an actual time and/or of a real person, but that time, that person, relates to all of his readers.

These historical poems deal mostly with the events and individuals of the Hellenistic Age, the long, brilliant but slowly declining period of Greek political power and culture in the eastern Mediterranean following the conquests of Alexander the Great; the political Hellenist world died with the suicide of Cleopatra. Some of Cavafy’s works are about the Roman world, and a few treat episodes from the history of the Byzantine Empire. Some touch upon religion, although not from the viewpoint of belief; Cavafy was and remained a member of the Greek Orthodox communion but did not practice the religion. There are also love poems, obviously homosexual, intense but never presenting sexual acts.

Almost all his poems have a voice, a clear speaker. The voices are sometimes the actual voices of the protagonists, but more often, especially in the historical poems, there is a seemingly objective presentation, as if a film camera is filming the events and people, or there is a speaker outside the events, describing calmly, but never dispassionately, what is going on or has occurred.

His refusal to make explicit and simple generalizations grounds the poems in real human experience, not in vagueness or preachiness, so that the reader experiences their meanings; that is, Cavafy asks his reader to live in his world, not simply to draw grand or simple lessons from it. The general tone of his historical poems is elegiac—a quiet lament for loss, for the ends of things, for the decline of a great civilization, for the loss of individual hopes, and, in the end, for the inevitability of historical change, which destroys.

“Waiting for the Barbarians”

First published: “Perimenontas tous varvarous,” 1904 (collected in The Complete Poems of Cavafy, 1961)

Type of work: Poem

Two speakers, in the course of a day, talk of the collapse of their political world, unable to understand what is happening.

This poem is a dialogue, a short drama but deliberately without any sort of action; the first speaker asks a series of questions, which is answered by the second. Each exchange advances the time of day a little, from the morning to the late afternoon; there is no symbolic night that would somehow give closure. The dialogue has been read as reflecting the final days of the Roman Empire, attacked and overrun by Germanic invaders, although the scene and meaning should not be limited to a particular time or set of events. The poem is about Rome, but by implication about all imperial civilizations coming to their end; there is also a suggestion of the final days of the Byzantine Empire, the continuation of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean.

The speakers are citizens of a dying empire and are waiting for the arrival of the barbarians, who will take over, by implication making real decisions and exercizing real power, restoring energy if not peace. The tone of the conversation is hardly excited; the...

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