Written in 1947, ‘The Fall of Rome’ is one of W. H. Auden’s finest poems of his middle period. Although he had made his name as a poet in the 1930s – indeed, as the most celebrated English poet of that decade – he continued to be prolific for the next three-and-a-half decades until his death in 1973. What makes ‘The Fall of Rome’ such a fine example of Auden’s 1940s work? Before we offer some words of analysis, you might wish to read the poem here.
In summary, ‘The Fall of Rome’ is about the fall of the Roman empire: its title indicates as much. But we should say two things about that title. First, Auden calls his poem ‘The Fall of Rome’ rather than ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire’, a title which would have brought to mind Edward Gibbon’s vast eighteenth-century history, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Is ‘Rome’ meant to stand in, as a form of synecdoche, for the whole of the Roman empire in Auden’s title? Or does he have the geographical city specifically in mind? We’ll return to this question.
The other key thing to draw attention to about Auden’s title is that it is only partially true: many of the details in Auden’s poem are clearly anachronistic for a poem about the Roman empire in the fifth century BCE, such as the idea of a clerk writing on a ‘pink official form’ (rather than scratching things onto a tablet, which is what a Roman official would have done). So the poem is, if not quite an allegory for another empire and another time, a poem about both the fall of Rome and the fall of other great civilisations.
In this respect, it’s worth pairing Auden’s poem with another poem by a great twentieth-century Anglo-American poet: The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot. Eliot published The Waste Land in 1922, a few years after the end of the First World War; Eliot’s poem is about the fall of empires, with ‘Jerusalem Athens Alexandra’ paving the way for ‘Vienna [and] London’, with London’s imminent fall forecast next.
As the critic Eleanor Cook among others has shown, the fall of the Roman empire lurks behind The Waste Land, through (among others) the reference to the Battle of Mylae, which took place during one of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage.
Rome is the city missing from Eliot’s list of fallen cities which were the centres of empires and civilisations: the First World War had put paid to the Austro-Hungarian empire which had its capital at Vienna, and Eliot’s poem seems to imply that, when we observe the financial and sexual habits of Londoners, the days of the British Empire, too, are numbered.
Auden, too, was writing his poem about the fall of an empire in the immediate wake of a world war: 1947 was just two years after the end of the Second World War, of course, but it was also the year that India gained its independence from the British Empire, and the year that, in the wake of the end of the war, the breakup of Britain’s imperial possessions seemed to be inevitable (as, indeed, the next few decades showed).
Auden’s anachronisms reinforce something that Eliot’s poem also shows: that history repeats itself, and that mighty empires always have their time in the sun but are inevitably doomed to die.
‘The Fall of Rome’ begins and ends with the focus on the world beyond human concerns: the timeless ocean and the indomitable weather in the first stanza, and the reindeer migrating thousands of miles away from Rome, in northern Canada for instance, in the poem’s final stanza.
Such book-ending is also reinforced by the stanzas’ abba rhyme schemes, which mimic the act of moving towards something before ultimately moving out from it again, much as the poem homes or zooms in on the people of Rome only to leave them behind again at the end of the poem.
Furthermore, there is a striking passivity in the opening line, with the piers being ‘pummelled by the waves’, with the passive voice reflecting the fact that the world goes on beyond man’s own endeavours: his (man-made) piers, built to enable the loading and unloading of goods for trade all over the vast empire of the Mediterranean, are at the mercy of the ravages of the sea (and, by extension, time), which has no knowledge of what it does. Even the outlaws ‘fill[ing] the mountain caves’ suggests that their occupation of the caves is inevitable.
And when we come to the human players in this miniature drama, the emphasis is on the financial inequality that is rife throughout the city (and the empire): tax-dodgers are hastening the financial ruin of the city, and although ‘Cerebrotonic Cato’ (a Stoic Roman senator and noted orator) may speak about grand intellectual pursuits, he is divorced from reality, because the sailors and soldiers have not been paid their wages (presumably because the tax-defaulters have taken their money with them). ‘Cerebrotonic’ means intellectual but with little social understanding, so is a stroke of genius on Auden’s part – not least because it’s exactly the sort of word Cato would know and use.
The socio-economic inequality is further exposed in the following stanza, where Caesar (either Julius Caesar or one of the emperors who followed him and took that name: ironically, Julius Caesar was called Caesar but wasn’t a ‘Caesar’, i.e. an emperor) has a comfortable double bed and someone to share it with, while the poor lowly clerk (trying to do something about the lack of funds and balance the books) angrily but silently protests about his hatred of his work. This stanza is one of the finest Auden wrote, not least because it is simultaneously provocative, funny, moving, and infinitely ‘relatable’.
Then, in the penultimate stanza, we get the bird’s-eye view – quite literally. The birds sit on their eggs and ‘eye’ each of the cities plagued by flu and other diseases. And then we have that majestic final stanza, with its closing line treading the fine line between banal simplicity and profundity: Seamus Heaney, who elsewhere dismissed Auden as ‘a charming writer of light verse’, singled out this line as an example of Auden’s ‘music’. The slowness of ‘Silently’ is then undone by the simple brevity of ‘very fast’.
‘The Fall of Rome’ does what T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had done at the end of the First World War, but applies this blending of different cities, empires, and time-periods to the fallout from the Second World War.
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was ‘Tennysonian’ but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call ‘modernism’.
Surprisingly given his later, better-known work, Auden’s early poetry flirted with the obscurity of modernism: in 1932 his long work The Orators (a mixture of verse and prose poetry with an incomprehensible plot) was published by Faber and Faber, then under the watchful eye of none other than T. S. Eliot. Auden later distanced himself from this experimental false start, describing The Orators as the kind of work produced by someone who would later either become a fascist or go mad.
Auden thankfully did neither, embracing instead a more traditional set of poetic forms (he wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s) and a more direct way of writing that rejected modernism’s love of obscure allusion. This does not mean that Auden’s work is always straightforward in its meaning, and arguably his most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’, is often ‘misread’ as sincere elegy when it was intended to be a send-up or parody of public obituaries.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers who saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade. In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90% of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.