Waiting for the Barbarians

(Janus Vitalis, Baldassar Castiglione, and many other poets wrote about the aftermath of the fall of Rome. These two poets are idly waiting it to happen.)

Paul Verlaine

Je suis l’Empire à la fin de la décadence,
Qui regarde passer les grands Barbares blancs
En composant des acrostiches indolents
D’un style d’or où la langueur du soleil danse.

L’ame seulette a mal au coeur d’un ennui dense,
Là-bas on dit qu’il est de longs combats sanglants.
O n’y pouvoir, étant si faible aux voeux si lents,
O n’y vouloir fleurir un peu cette existence!

O n’y vouloir, ô n’y pouvoir mourir un peu!
Ah! tout est bu! Bathylle, as-tu fini de rire!
Ah! tout est bu, tout est mangé! Plus rien à dire!

Seul un poème un peu niais qu’on jette au feu,
Seul un esclave un peu coureur qui vous néglige,
Seul un ennui d’on ne sait quoi qui vous afflige!

Waiting for the Barbarians

C. P. Cavafy (tr. Keeley)

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

      The barbarians are due here today.

  Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?
Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

Because the barbarians are coming today.
      What’s the point of senators making laws now?
      Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

Why did our emperor get up so early,
and why is he sitting enthroned at the city’s main gate,
in state, wearing the crown?

      Because the barbarians are coming today
      and the emperor’s waiting to receive their leader.
      He’s even got a scroll to give him,
      loaded 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,
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 turn up 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 bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?

      Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
      And some of our men just in from the border say
      there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.

Janus Vitalis and his translators
Baldassarre Castiglione on the ruins of Rome
More poems about permanence and transience