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.
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.