Andrew Ford (b. 1957)

Waiting for the Barbarians (2011)

Most poetry is either written in the first person or, at least, from the poet's point of view, so it seldom makes much sense to have it sung by a choir. But 'Waiting for the Barbarians' by C. P. Cavafy is that rare thing: a poetic crowd scene. I had long wanted to put this poem to music – I see from the date written in the fly leaf that I bought my copy of Cavafy's collected poems the summer I finished high school – but I could never make it work. This is because I was trying to imagine it sung by a solo baritone voice. In fact it needs a chorus.

The Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (1863 -1933) wrote 'Waiting for the Barbarians' in 1904. It is not a poem that will date. We will always feel disappointed in our politicians, and there will always be those among us who feel that anything – even capitulation to barbarians – is better than the status quo.

There are several good English translations of the poem, including the one by John Mavrogordato that I have had on my shelf since 1975 and a recent one by Daniel Mendelsohn, but when I came to look for the version to set to music they all seemed a little too flat and formal for my needs. This was Cavafy's detached style, of course, but it seemed to me that, sung, the words might sound a little lacking in energy. So I decided to make my own version, putting in more repetition (Cavafy already had some), adding a few colloquialisms and occasionally gingering up the tone.

Waiting for the Barbarians was commissioned by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, and composed between May and August 2011.

© A.F.

Why are we here?
What are we all doing here?
Why are we in the forum, just hanging around?
What are we waiting for?

The barbarians are coming. Barbarians are on their way. The Barbarians are coming today.

Why are our senators so idle?
Why this silence in the Senate house?
The politicians sit there and do nothing:
Why don't they pass some bills? Why don't they make some laws?

Because barbarians are coming. The barbarians will come today, so what's the point of passing bills? Now barbarians will make the laws.

Why was our emperor awake so early?
This morning, why was he up at dawn?
And why is he now at the city gate, sitting on his throne, wearing his crown?
Who is he waiting for?

He is waiting for the barbarians. Barbarians will come today. He will greet their leader. Our emperor will greet their leader. He will read a speech awarding their leader some titles.

Why have the ambassadors come outside? Why have the consuls and praetors come?
Why are they here today?
And why are they wearing their embroidered scarlet togas?
Why do they wear their bracelets and their amethysts, their flashing emerald rings?
Why do they carry their gold and silver walking sticks?

Because barbarians are coming and this sort of thing impresses them. Amethysts, emeralds, gold and silver: Barbarians like glitter.

Why this silence?
Why are our best people silent?
Why aren't they here to tell us what they think?

Barbarians are coming. Barbarians are nearly here. Barbarians are quickly bored by eloquence and rhetoric and reason.

But why now this unrest?
Why, why all of a sudden this commotion? Why this confusion?
Everybody looks so serious. Why is this?
Why are people leaving now?
Everyone so deep in thought, so disappointed.
What has happened?
Why are people going home?

Because it's night.
They didn't come. The barbarians didn't come.
And now some other people have arrived from the border.
And they're saying there are no barbarians any more.

What will we do? Without barbarians, what will happen to us?
Those people, at least, were a kind of solution.

C. P. Cavafy
English version © Andrew Ford