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The Fall of Rome -- W H Auden

Guest poem submitted by Sunil Iyengar:
(Poem #494) The Fall of Rome
 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.
-- W H Auden
for Cyril Connolly.

This poem may be read instructively with "Under Which Lyre," the lyric that
precedes it in Edward Mendelson's Selected Auden. Both poems shrewdly juxtapose
Roman vices and political intrigue with post-World War II America. In "The Fall
of Rome," the effect transcends both eras, presenting one fused vision of a
civilization in decline. I especially admire the sheer tawdriness of details
Auden selects. Any melodrama is swiftly undercut by the mundane, even pathetic.
In this Rome, "tax-defaulters" consume the State's attention; entrenched labor
grievances compromise the Marines; and the city is threatened not by the
outbreak of another plague, but by flu.

Further notes on content: "All the literati keep/An imaginary friend" probably
refers to the poet's opinion (see the essays comprising his prose collection,
"The Dyer's Hand") that poor writing can often be attributed to a disregard for
one's audience. Thus, an "imaginary friend" betrays the poet into "the spell of
self-enchantment when lip-smacking imps of mawk and hooey/write with us what
they will." That line comes from "The Cave of Making," Auden's tribute to Louis
MacNeice.

Finally, who can resist smiling at the all-too-recognizable image of "an
unimportant clerk" who writes "I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK/On a pink official form"?
Auden alone of 20th-century poets is so attuned to the discordance between our
personal and professional lives. (Again, see his essay, "The Poet and the City"
for a great analysis of this distinction in ancient and modern times.) One
thinks immediately of his lines from "September 1, 1939":

 From the conservative dark
 Into the ethical life
 The dense commuters come,
 Repeating their morning vow,
 "I will be true to the wife,
 I'll concentrate more on my work."

As in the best of Auden, content in "The Fall of Rome" is inseparable from the
syntax that disperses itself across the regular stanzas. The ABBA rhyme-scheme
allows each scene to cohere at the center, then ripple away to an unexpected
relationship with the opening line. More strikingly, the clever enjambments (the
continuation of a phrase across a line boundary) assure us right away that Auden
will avoid a singsong rhythm. In the first stanza alone, we get startled by "In
a lonely field the rain/Lashes an abandoned train," and the feat is sustained
until the last stanza, worth repeating in full:

 Altogether elsewhere, vast
 Herds of reindeer move across
 Miles and miles of golden moss
 Silently and very fast.

(Seamus Heaney cites this stanza enthusiastically in an excellent essay,
"Sounding Auden.") The stress on the first syllable of "Silently" slows down the
line, compelling the awe of "very fast." We are left to contemplate this
gorgeous (and slightly ominous) image of arrival, "altogether elsewhere," and
how "the unimportant clerk" and his ilk stand in lamentable contrast to this
promise of total freedom.

Sunil Iyengar.

52 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Hamish McCallum said...

It is a great poem. However, it seem to me that the comparison is
between the (effete and corrupt) liberal democracies and other parts of
the world, notably the USSR. Also, to someone of Auden's generation,
influenza was not the minor illness we think of today: the 1918
epidemic was horrific, unimaginably destructive.

Hamish McCallum

Gerry Rowe said...

The anachronisms and juxtapositions throughout conjure
very economically a rich sense of the diversity of
life, time and place to which these lines may apply.
And the last verse, with its reminder that there is a
greater world of unexplained, coolly indifferent
tendencies beyond the confines of the world putatively
organised and civilised by man, reverberates true as a
fine-tuned bell.

The word 'cerebrotonic' interests me. I take it to
mean that Cato - a Stoic philosopher I believe -
offers the tonic of a mental discipline that might
have proven an antidote to moral disintegration (but
here turns out to be of little avail). I have never
found 'cerebrotonic' in any dictionary. Any other
views on this?

With thanks to Sunil for an illuminating commentary.

Gerry Rowe

OnwardAndOutward said...

To expand on the comment that influenza has sometimes been more than just a
minor irritation--- Don't quote me on this, but if my memory of the Nova
episode (Praise PBS!) on the Flu of 1918 serves me correctly, I believe
Hamish has made a keen observation: firstly, said flu is considered the worst
pandemic ever, killing ~21 M people world-wide, and responsible for more
deaths than concussion, shrapnel, bullet, or bayonet. It thrived on the
close quarters and unsanitary conditions that trench warfare and troop
carriers entailed. Secondly, though the 1918 strain is believed to have been
a swine flu, researchers today are more wary of a bird flu epidemic, as such
might be even more catastrophic. I'm not sure if this was a concern at the
time, but if it was, it would shed some light on Auden's choice of imagery in
the stanza in question. Great site, guys!

Christian Gindlesperger said...

In regards to "cerebrotonic"--it just struck me that, for all the times I've
read this poem, I really have had no idea at all what this word means. Of
course, it's easy to assume that the cognate "cerebral" has something to do
with it, so I guess I always assumed it was a synonym for brainy. However, a
quick internet search turned up this bit of medical terminolgy, which is
probably more exactly what Auden had in mind:

cerebrotonia
Rarely used term for a personality pattern proposed by William H. Sheldon
associated with the relatively thin, ectomorphic bodily type and with
predominance of intellective processes; characterised by traits of
inhibition, restraint, and concealment.

Origin: cerebro-+ G. Tonos, tone

So, I guess I'd propose that "cerebrotonic" described someone exhibiting the
symptoms or signs of cerebrotonia (Unfortunately for Cato).

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow
For Thine is the Kingdom
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow
Life is very long
--T.S. Elliot, "The Hollow Men"

Martin DeMello said...

--- Christian Gindlesperger wrote:
> In regards to "cerebrotonic"--it just struck me that, for all the times I've
> read this poem, I really have had no idea at all what this word means. Of
> course, it's easy to assume that the cognate "cerebral" has something to do
> with it, so I guess I always assumed it was a synonym for brainy. However, a
> quick internet search turned up this bit of medical terminolgy, which is
> probably more exactly what Auden had in mind:

Thank you! You're absolutely right - I'd also just assumed it was a synonym for
'brainy', without even noticing I'd done so.

martin

Brigham Taylor said...

An addendum is the re-vision of the fifth stanza, made up by a feminist
character in Alison Lurie's 1974 novel, The War Between the Tates:

Cleopatra's lips are kissed

As an ordinary wife

Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY LIFE

Underneath her shopping list.

Brigham Taylor

higgen said...

Auden usually has a precise ear for speech patterns and avoiding a false
"poetic" phrase.

But I think he faltered in the line:

"Fantastic grow the evening gowns;"

Oh well: I'll forgive that for the wonderful last stanza!

Anonymous said...

i don't know if you playderized that 'cause i saw this poem somewhere else written by someone else, but i like this poem wrote it or not

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