Wednesday, 18 February 2015

W.H Auden: The Fall of Rome

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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.


All great empires come to an end, and in this sense, the Roman Empire is no different.

The fall of an empire evokes images of a sudden event burning houses and crumbling walls, but this is not always what happens as WH Auden's 'The Fall of Rome' reveals.

From this poem it could be said that Rome crumbled from the inside, poignantly being represented by 'an unimportant clerk writing I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK'. Small imperfections in the day-to-day running of Rome are highlighted well in this way, with other examples including 'all the literati keep[ing] and imaginary friend' and 'absconding tax defaulters'. This magnifies the idea that the thing that caused Rome to collapse was not sudden or violent, but rather something similar to the final straw that broke the horse's back.

The cinematic imagery is one of my favourite things about this poem. The focus seems to move inwards, first contemplating the waves, then a lonely field, then the mountains before zooming inwards towards man-made temples, marines and ultimately Caesar's double bed. it then zooms out again, to the little birds and vast herds of reindeer.

'The Fall of Rome' could also be said to be reminiscent of  Shelley's 'Ozymandias' with the idea that material wealth and glory do not last forever. The poem seems to move from a material focus 'piers' 'evening gowns' 'temples' towards a more natural one 'speckled eggs' 'herds of reindeer' 'golden moss'. The language used throughout the poem could also be compared to this, it moves from more complex Latinic language, such as 'cerebrotonic Cato' to simpler, more Anglo-Saxon language, such as 'silently and very fast'.  This echos the sense that all great empires must come to an end, and eventually fall into the hands of eternal nature, which is 'unendowned with wealth', and Auden beautifully conflates this weakness of ancient civilization with society today.
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