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.”