Talking about poems just for the pleasure of it

Saturday, April 16, 2011

W.H. Auden, "The Fall of Rome"-- CORRECTED

(for Cyril Connolly)

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.

There's so much to be said about this one, some of which I hope you will supply.  This is Auden at his sardonic best, wouldn't you say?  One part of his greatness was that he provided for us the human spirit's necessary response to much of the twentieth century's evil:  the alienation, the banal violence.  Elsewhere his voice, though still ironic, comes out in a cry of outrage; here the tone is more detached.      

The Wondering Minstrels (well worth browsing) give an excellent analysis, including observations about the effects of the rhyme scheme, and of the line-breaks in mid sentence.  (For more about line breaks, and how to read poetry out loud, here's a real live poet.)

Instead of meditating on a single scene, this poem constantly switches scenes, with juxtaposed images that build up a sense of absurdity and corruption.  There is a pattern to the scene changes, though:  we begin on the city's outskirts, zoom in towards the bowels, then pan out again; finally we are taken "altogether elsewhere."  What is the relationship of this completely-other place to the city?  That seems crucial to the poem's meaning.

One of the themes here is the fragmentation of the city's life.  Each segment of society is isolated, oblivious to the others.  The "temple prostitutes" and the "literati" each seek their own mode of distraction.  Religion, sex,  poetry-- they have all been debased.  The city's military protectors,  forgotten by a decadent society, have no use for classical traditions of virtue.  The ruler's bed is warm-- probably not so much from sensual passion as from mere sloth; while he sleeps late, the office worker labors on, trapped in an impotence only bureaucracy can inflict.

But what about those reindeer?  Are they, like the scarlet-legged birds, a threat to the city?  Or are they in some way the city's hope?  They have an elemental power and beauty.

NOTE:  I apologize to Auden and to all of you.  In the sixth stanza, "flu-infested" has been corrected to read "flu-infected."



  1. I love the line "fantastic grow the evening gowns"! It makes me think of the roaring twenties. The whole thing is amazing because it somehow applies to so many decades or eras at once; it could easily have been a very pedantic comparison between ancient Rome and 20th century America, especially with the specific references like the Marines, but somehow it stays universal.

    I can't remember when I first read this poem, but I had thought the reindeer were the forces of the barbarians, or nature, or both, rushing in to overwhelm the city and destroy it. I guess there's something ominous about "silently and very fast." But at the same time, even if that is what it means, that's not necessarily bad--it's like a cleansing wave coming over the filth of the city. Even though it's the reindeer rushing over the moss, not the moss rushing, it creates a picture in my mind of the wind rushing over a field of golden wheat, making it look like moving water.


  2. I'm looking forward to exploring this poem tonight, guided by you. You enlarge me world!

  3. The little birds with scarlet legs, and the herds of reindeer, remind me of the dog in "Musee des Beaux Arts," who goes on with his doggy life, no matter what momentous or terrible events are going on around him. The life of nature is both comforting, because it carries on, and distressing, because of its indifference to the human tragedy. But I find it more comforting than distressing...because of the beauty.

  4. Rosie, I think of the image the same way-- even if it's ominous, that's not necessarily bad, because all that comes before it in the poem is so nasty, tawdry, and corrupt. And right, the motion is like a wave-- in its noiselessness. Yes, that "silently and very fast" is a little terrifying. I think I always used to see the reindeer as ominous, but now I take note of that "altogether elsewhere" and I don't think they directly threaten the city, or cities, at all. Their world is so totally removed from all the human constructions. They're unconcerned with our world.

    Rebecca, the reference to "Musee des Beaux Arts" is very helpful. I agree that the way nature carries on is comforting, in an unsentimental way. (I guess Auden, like the old masters, was right about suffering-- he was unsentimental about it.) It's comforting because all the human nastiness and evil is never going to be able to completely destroy nature, never get at the heart of the earth's life.

  5. I love that poem and agree with what you said on it.

  6. I love that poem and agree with what you said on it.

  7. Synthia Adare (Rose Johnson)April 25, 2011 at 8:10 PM

    Great poem!--W.H. Auden's enchanting poem "The Fall of Rome" is one of my favorites!

  8. I think this poem is exceptionally good in the way that it is portrayed throughout the fall of the Romans . Did you know that most schools look up to Auden and accept him as a main poem writer and students write about him and his poems.

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