The Fall of Rome by W. H. Auden
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
This poem doesn’t have the slippery, oblique intellectuality of Auden at his most Audenesque. September 1, 1939 seems like a typically Auden poem; faced with the second great war of his lifetime, he produced a poem that flickers between the grand sweep of history and the mundanities of everyday life, via psychology and ethics and politics – but without using ideas to hide from the ominous reality.
The Fall of Rome is much more direct, although the handling of form, the subject matter and the use of the anachronisms all feel typically Auden. I think what makes this poem stick in my mind is simply the image-making – the aptness and precision. I like the poem even though I have an uneasy feeling that it’s trying to persuade me of something I don’t believe; but I’m not quite sure what that is. The vigour of the simple-minded, perhaps.
Next up – The Seafarer. Hopefully I can find something a bit more insightful to say about that one.