Poetry is honey for the soul (11) – ML Kappa

Poetry is honey for the soul

Marina gives us regularly news from Greece in her blog:


I follow it with the utmost assiduity: politics, economy, society, refugees, literature, Ancient Greece, Grecian Islands, myths, history, traditions -her blog is always full of information. Its full name is “Letters from Athens – A blog about life and times in Greece”.

Today, she invites us to read or re-read a poem by Constantin Cavafy, which sounds oddly relevant to our times.

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C.P. Cavafy is widely considered the most distinguished Greek poet of the twentieth century. He was born in 1863 in Alexandria, Egypt, where his Greek parents had settled in the mid-1850s.

During his lifetime Cavafy was an obscure poet, living in relative seclusion and publishing little of his work. A short collection of his poetry was privately printed in the early 1900s and reprinted with new verse a few years later, but that was the extent of his published poetry. Instead, Cavafy chose to circulate his verse among friends.

Cavafy was an avid student of history, particularly ancient civilizations, and in a great number of poems he subjectively rendered life during the Greek and Roman empires.

Among his most acclaimed poems is “Waiting for the Barbarians,” in which leaders in ancient Greece prepare to yield their land to barbarians only to discover that the barbarians, so necessary to political and social change, no longer exist.

Greek and Persian warriors in a duel



What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?


The barbarians are due here today.


Why isn’t anything happening in the senate?

Why do the senators sit there without legislating?


Because the barbarians are coming today.

What laws can the senators make now?

Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.


Why did our emperor get up so early,

and why is he sitting at the city’s main gate

on his throne, in state, wearing the crown?


Because the barbarians are coming today

and the emperor is waiting to receive their leader.

He has even prepared a scroll to give him,

replete 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,

and 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 come forward 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 restlessness, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,

everyone going home so lost in thought?


Because night has fallen and the barbarians have not come.

And some who have just returned from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.


And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

They were, those people, a kind of solution.


Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Edited by George Savidis. Revised Edition. Princeton University Press, 1992)

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A sample of C. Cavafy’s handwriting
A street of Alexandria  where C. Cavafy was born

15 thoughts on “Poetry is honey for the soul (11) – ML Kappa

  1. Reblogged this on Letters from Athens and commented:
    Camille de Fleurville is running a poetry series on her fascinating blog, Sketches and Vignettes from La Dordogne. She very kindly asked me to contribute and I chose a poem by one of the greatest Greek poets, Constantine Cavafy. Do pop over to take a look.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is such a powerful poem. A poem that speaks urgently to us today. It reminds me of the first rules we learn in geopolitics: a country needs enemies. And this is also very powerfully said in Shakespeare’s Henry V: when a situation is tricky within a country, develop a war with enemies outside your country, find any barbarians: they are your solution.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I still think the poems lose something in translation, a certain aroma, but he’s done a terrific job. The most difficult ones to translate are where there is a cadence to the language, almost like a song.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. He’s marvelous. Not well known in his lifetime, he was very reserved, also a homosexual, which was not accepted in the bourgeois society of Alexandria. He’s written a lot of quite erotic poetry, also odes to ordinary things such as artificial flowers(!) and, of course, a lot about Ancient Greece.


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