The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Constantine P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians” is a thirty-five-line poem composed of questions (in fifteen-syllable lines) and answers (in twelve-and thirteen-syllable lines). Although the speakers are not identified, they are clearly citizens of a city in the Roman Empire speculating on a public event and trying to assess its importance by observing the behavior of their public officials. Each stanza of the poem contains one or more questions, followed by a brief answer.

The first question about why people have gathered in the forum is given a precise reply: Today the barbarians are expected to arrive. Puzzled by the inactivity of the senate, the first speaker is told that law making has been suspended because of the imminent arrival of the barbarians. It seems futile to continue legislating when the barbarians will surely want to make their own rules.

The first speaker’s focus then shifts to the emperor, who has risen early and sits on his throne at the city’s main gate, wearing his crown. The first speaker is told that the emperor is waiting to welcome the barbarians’ leader and has even prepared a scroll of the most important names in the city.

Then the first speaker notices the consuls and praetors, officials appearing in their finest public dress, adorned with various items of dazzling jewelry. He is assured that the barbarians are impressed with such displays of wealth and power. The first speaker also notices that the city’s “distinguished orators” make no show and present no speeches. He is informed that barbarians find “rhetoric and public speaking” boring.

Then the public mood shifts, and the first speaker is bewildered by the sudden seriousness of the people, who are now leaving for home and seemingly lost in reverie. The second speaker answers that it is because “night has fallen” and the barbarians still have not arrived. Indeed, word has come from “the border” that the barbarians no longer exist. The first speaker ends the poem wondering what will happen without the barbarians, since they were a “kind of solution.”

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem proceeds by asking what seem like simple-minded questions that are put to a well-informed authority on the significance of public events. Yet the rudimentary quality of the questions enables Cavafy to describe the setting with maximum objectivity, since the questions are based purely on observation and on a desire to understand events, without interpreting too quickly. Each answer to a question thus elaborates some aspect of the setting, of what it means to wait for the barbarians. By asking questions, the first speaker is able to lay bare the assumptions of the second speaker, the public officials, and the populace. As a result, the dramatic impact of the scene is enhanced: It comes alive by the gradual revelation of details and explanations.

The major device of the poem is irony. Although the first speaker seems naïve, and the second, by comparison, sophisticated, in fact, no one in the city (as the conclusion implies) is acting on solid information. Instead, they are all behaving according to their expectations of what they think the barbarians will be like. At the same time, the populace and their leaders are exposing their own sense of futility. Neither the senate nor the emperor provides any positive action. In their passive roles they are like the people they lead—waiting for the intervention of an external force.

The dialogue form of the poem also enhances its irony, since the format of questions and answers would seem to provide some resolution of certain issues—or, at the very least, a full exploration of the issues—as in Plato’s dialogues. Yet, just the contrary is true: No matter how many questions are asked, the same answer is always given, which makes a mockery of the dialogue form, since no new knowledge is acquired.

The imagery of the poem enforces the notion of a complex civilization, wealthy and cosmopolitan, that has stagnated. It can dress itself up to awe the barbarians, but it cannot act for itself. Nowhere does the poet explicitly state his opinion. On the contrary, he prefers understatement and irony, allowing adjectives such as “embroidered,” “magnificent,” and “elegant”—used to describe togas and jewelry—to convey the grand, yet inert, quality of this civilization, which at this point in its development can do no more than display itself.