The Fall of Rome (from poets.org)
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.
An apocalyptic vision attends Yeats’ The Second Coming. Whatever ends our world will be monstrous, larger than life. It will destroy according to its agenda, and it will feel as alien as it is terrible, for it is taking on no less than God. Chaos can’t be understood, scientifically or morally.
The drama in Auden’s rendering of Rome’s fall centers on decay. Comparison with Yeats’ vision makes decay seem innocent. Can a society where some run away from the tax collector, prostitutes fall asleep at work, ambitious writers talk to themselves, and bored clerks waste official forms be so bad? There’s decadence, laziness, boredom, sure. But do the small sins cause the larger rot?
The poem juxtaposes what I’m calling the “small sins” with symbols of much larger ailments and a looming, threatening natural world. The first two stanzas add another element, in fact: they join scenes of Rome to those of the modern world. Pummelled piers, an abandoned train lashed by rain; it’s like man’s true place, no matter what era, is hiding from nature’s wrath. Outlaws in mountain caves can be the crudest, cruelest murderers, and they can also be all of us.
That there’s something uniquely savage about man sets up the problems of decay, of the largeness and smallness of crimes, of nature’s fierceness and innocence. The second stanza does not allow us to blame our savagery on nature at all. Which of these is the worst? Evening gowns growing ever more fantastic and opulent, tax collectors trying to do their job, poor people running through sewers to avoid the latter. The evening gowns are obviously the coldest, the worst. It’s not a simple “eat the rich” statement; Auden understands what an awful machine politics is. Any given system is going to ossify, creating winners and losers. Any given system is going to allow the winners to think they’re entitled, as they play by the rules and the rules work for them. By contrast, the losers are denied their humanity: they’re never competent, virtuous, or wealthy enough.
There are no “small sins” emblematic of decay, then. There is only decay and its results: benefiting from it, trying to combat it, or just trying to survive. Prostitutes and their “private rites of magic” are lumped with writers trying to imagine something entirely different. No one’s attempt at virtue is better than any other’s, as the struggle is held in common. You can try for renewal, attempt to stem the decay. In this, you will loom large as a moral figure, a “Cerebrotonic Cato.” If only we listen to the wisdom of our fathers! Of the ancients! Auden joins Xenophon’s Socrates in understanding that a renewal of ancient wisdom is always doomed to fail in the face of fatal circumstances (cf. Memorabilia III.5). You’re asking ancient wisdom, the core of which is moderation, to perform multiple heroic acts to save an empire. The moderation of ancient wisdom made itself efficacious precisely because it served to contrast with imperial decay. “Muscle-bound Marines” should “mutiny for food and pay:” the ancestors would have done so too, in our circumstances.
Everything, like it or not, is a defense of Caesar, and the defense gets ever more shrill, increasing in strength, at the same time those of us at the bottom are dehumanized even more. Inasmuch Auden stays moralistic in tone, it actually feels like there are degrees of remedy for the problems posed. A bit more equality, a bit more sensitivity go a long way. The imagery concerning nature and wilderness stands as a corrective to any optimism.
It’s easy to talk about morality when one’s parameters are entirely political. The law and how we treat each other are the heart of politics and morals. We can’t blame our savagery against each other on nature. However, that last statement does not mean we have any real independence from nature, for how we treat each other as organized animals does not change the fact we’re animals. Nature, for morality and politics, is the perpetual threat of cataclysm. It’s a reset button for society that works by eliminating us. Other animals, such as the reindeer of the last stanza, move in panicked, tribal motions, as if they are running away from some grave danger. I think I remember some comment about Thucydides, how the natural motions, such as plague and earthquakes, seem so much deadlier than the motions of war or politics.