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Reading Auden’s “The Fall of Rome”

This poem, it is said, was written when Auden was asked by his friend, Cyril Connolly, to pen a poem that would make him weep.

Well, to be honest, it didn’t make me weep, but it is still pretty fucking fantastic. What about you? Have a read:


The Fall of Rome

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
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.


I didn’t have a keen interest in ancient history until I started reading about Rome and its decay as a way of getting insight about where the U.S. is headed today. The comparisons between the U.S. and Rome is not original or accurate if you get pedantic with a historian, but in a poetic sense, look how the themes Auden presents ring so awful and true for Americans today.

“Absconding tax defaulter” in “the sewers of provincial towns”? Sound like anyone on the news a lot nowadays?

(I mean Trump. In case you didn’t get it. I am increasingly less confident in my powers of allusion.)

“Cerebrotonic Cato may / Extol the Ancient Disciplines, / But the muscle-bound Marines / Mutiny for food and pay.” And when is it more apparent than today, the  vast and gaping gulf between the educated elite, with their high-minded liberal ideals, their academic feminism and muscle-free globalism VERSUS the working people of ghostly industrial towns and PTSD, stripped of dignity and insurrecting with virtue-free ire?

“Caesar’s double-bed is warm / As an unimportant clerk / Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK / On a pink official form.” Ah, here it is, why my heart beats and my breath skips for Auden. Such compact and damning imagery hidden in a lulling ABBA rhyme scheme (warm – clerk – work – form). His humour, laced with a bitterness; the way he crosses modernity with the ancients in one fell swoop, as well as the sacred with the profane (as in his Musee des Beaux Arts, where he goes swfitly from the massacre of children before Christ’s birth to a horse scratching its butt against a tree.) The idea of a Roman clerk scribbling words of dissatisfaction IN ALL CAPS on a pink slip of paper makes me first laugh, of course, and then despair a little bit — about the ubiquity of this condition, postmodern alienation, hiding in the crevices of trivial daily life. Was it also thus in Caesar’s day? I wasn’t there, and neither was Auden, but he thinks so, maybe?

Ah, and the last stanza! Suddenly, with “herds of reindeer” crossing “miles of golden moss, / Silently and very fast”, we suddenly zoom way, way fucking out, out of Rome, out of America or wherever your mind was, to… where the reindeer are, and that is — what — Sweden? Lapland? A borderless, post-human, northerly zone of stillness, for sure. One of those National Geographic aerial shots, surrealist in the lack of sound, and fast-forwarded. I love the cinematography of Auden; his imagination is vertiginously agile. While human folly and greed are unfolding with the utmost absurdity and drama in the greatest of cities, there it is on the other side, the uncommenting indifference of ever-moving nature.


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