Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

As the last line of the poem suggests, “Waiting for the Barbarians” is about a state of mind as much as it is about an actual event. Although the setting would seem to be in a later phase of the Roman Empire, the city is not identified, the emperor is not named, no specific historical event is evoked, and the speakers themselves are less individuals than they are the voices of a civilization, of a certain habit of mind, of what might be termed decadence.

The civilization described in the poem is obviously in decline, no longer having the energy to renew itself. Not only does the senate not meet, not only does the emperor take his position at the city gate and function as no more than a figurehead, but even the orators (who merely have to create speeches, not perform deeds) cannot arouse themselves, rationalizing their inactivity by claiming that the barbarians are bored by speeches. Such lack of faith in the power of words is the ultimate in decadence, in an attitude that suggests nothing is really worth doing.

The barbarians, then, hold out a kind of solution to the decadent, for the barbarians are presumed to be energetic, to prefer action over talk. The irony is that this conception of the barbarians is itself a projection of a decadent civilization, which imagines that a more primitive people will provide a vitality that the civilization lacks. The barbarians, notice, are presumed to be somewhere beyond the borders of the city, comfortably far enough away so that the populace can imagine being saved (rejuvenated) by an outside force, untainted by urban corruption.


(The entire section is 657 words.)