‘The Fall of Rome’ was written in 1947 and is one of Auden’s best poems to come after his famed 30’s period. It details the fall of civilizations in the Roman Empire and beyond through the depiction of “Rome.” Readers might approach this piece as an allegory, a story with a deeper meaning that has to be uncovered. In this case, he’s speaking about how civilizations collapse and the weaknesses within them. He wrote the poem after the end of World War II and soon after India gained independence from the British Empire. Therefore, there’s a great deal of context one might choose to read into the lines of ‘The Fall of Rome.’
Explore The Fall of Rome
In the first part of ‘The Fall of Rome,’ the speaker takes a wide look at the world and the power of the natural elements, things that humanity has no control over and has no regard for human life. These include the waves and rain. Something similar occurs in the final lines when the poet depicts reindeer walking across a meadow. As the stanzas progress, the speaker zooms into the scene, showing the reader what exactly is happening to cause the collapse of this once great civilizations.
People are dogging paying taxes, no one wants to work, the leaders aren’t paying attention to their citizen’ needs, and the sliders aren’t being paid. Those who should be the most vested in the continuation of the society have lost interest in it. They are getting nothing from it, and one day at a time, things start to slip into disrepair. All the while that Auden is describing these features, he’s also alluding to the fact that this could happen to any civilization at any time. It is not something that’s confined to the Roman Empire.
You can read the full poem here.
W.H. Auden engages with several interesting themes sin ‘The Fall of Rome.’ The most prominent of these are nature and civilization/society. The poet contrasts the fluidity and power of nature to the disrepair of Rome. The latter stands in for all large governed states, suggesting that what’s occurring within its borders could happen anywhere worldwide. The imagery Auden uses to describe nature is clear and powerfully direct. The rain, waves, and reindeer have no stake in what happens to the humans that inhabit their world. They continue on day after day, unbothered by financial strain and governmental collapse.
Structure and Form
‘The Fall of Rome’ W. H. Auden is a seven-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABBA CDDC, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. Readers might also notice the consistent meter at work in ‘The Fall of Rome.’ The odd-numbered lines contain eight syllables while the even-numbered lines have only seven, creating a feeling of unbalance as if something is just on the edge of falling apart.
W.H. Auden makes use of several literary devices in ‘The Fall of Rome.’ These include but are not limited to anachronisms, examples of enjambment, alliteration, and allusion. The latter is one of the most important as it allows the reader to realize that Auden is speaking broadly about the collapse of civilizations, not just the Roman Empire. When taken in context, it’s easy to relate this poem to the near-collapse of broader countries and regions during the Second World War.
An anachronism is a reference to something that belongs in another period. For example, the “pink official form” from the fifth stanza. It stands out in a poem that’s supposed to be taking place in the late 300’s AD.
Enjambment is a formal deice that’s used throughout all genres of poetry. It occurs when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines two and three of the first stanza as well as three and four of the second stanza. There are many more similar examples. Alliteration is a type of repetition, one that’s concerned with the use and reuse of the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “Cerebrotonic Cato” in stanza four and “muscle-bound Marines / Mutiny” later on in that same stanza.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
In the first stanza of the poem, the speaker takes a broad view of the world. He describes waves, fields, rain, trains, and “mountain caves.” The speaker moves through each of these depictions smoothly and clearly. This is the world as its seen from a distance, beyond that which humanity can control. The ocean will pummel the shore whether human beings are there or not. It will tear down the piers and the rain will continue to “lash” the “abandoned train” whether a civilization continues on or not. The same feeling of indomitability appears again at the end of the poem, bookending the poem. Readers should also take note of the use of alliteration in this stanza with “piers” and “pummelled.”
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
The speaker zooms in on the civilization in question in the second stanza. One of the first things the speaker tells the reader is that there is financial inequality in this world. There are “tax-defaulters” pursued by the “Fisc,” or the public treasury of Rome. These defaulters are stealing from the public and appear to be getting away with it. The image of “sewers” in the last line helps to darken the overall feeling of these lines. It doesn’t appear that this place is a particularly appealing one. As one moves through the lines of this piece, there are a few more Rome-specific references, but not so many that it seems overwhelming or that one forgets that these lines are meant to be applicable to a variety of situations.
Private rites of magic send
An imaginary friend.
The first line of this stanza alludes to the fall of the Roman Empire and the fact that pagan rituals, what would’ve been seen as “magic” were forbidden. THey’d become private and held in secret due to the Christian factions that had come to power. This is also an allusion to the Rome that used to exist but does no longer. The third stanza also refers to the “literati,” or the educated, upper class. The “imaginary” friends they keep are up for interpretations. It might be a reference to creators’ inner voices the either encourage or degrade them, or it might suggest that the “literati” were ignorant of the state of the world.
Cerebrotonic Cato may
Mutiny for food and pay.
“Cato,” a Roman senator, is referenced in the fourth stanza. He’s described as “Cerebrotonic,” or intellectual, but without social understanding. It’s a complex and unusual word, one that’s suited to Cato’s actual legacy. He might “Extol the Ancient Disciplines,” or the nobility and honor of warriors, but there are real-life, physical problems occurring around him. The “Disciplines” don’t matter to anyone anymore. The warriors of their day, who Auden refers to as “Marines,” mutiny in an effort to get the pay they’re owed. The collapse of their structures is drawing closer.
Caesar’s double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.
“Caesar,” which could be a reference to Julius Caesar, or any of the men who called themeless “Caesar,” or emperor, after him, is in bed. He’s more interested in sexual pursuits than he is in governing. Then, there are those like the “clerk,” who have jobs to do but hate them. He writes “I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK” on an anachronistic pink form, rather than a stone tablet. This reminds the reader that the lines of ‘The Fall of Rome’ can apply to contemporary civilizations as well.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
The second to last stanza of ‘The Fall of Rome’ starts to zoom out and the reader is treated to an image of birds watching on. They’re eying the “flu-infected city” as though they’re waiting for their chance to move back into that area. They have no concern for human problems. These lines provide the reader with wonderful examples of imagery. The best images in poetry are those which require the reader to imagine various sensations. These should require sight, sound, touch, taste, and more. The alliteration in these lines is also quite effective. The poet makes it very clear that the birds suffer from none of the weaknesses that human beings do. They don’t worry about “wealth or pity” in regards to their own lives and certainly not in regard to humanity’s collapse.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
In the final stanza, the poet finishes his verse by zooming all the way out in a similar way to the natural depictions in the first stanza. He depicts reindeer moving across “miles of golden moss,” once more careless and free. They have no opinion of or investment in what happens to the human beings in Rome or any other failing city. These beautiful examples of imagery are some of the best in Auden’s oeuvre.
It is also interesting to consider where Auden imagined these reindeer walking. As there are none in Rome, he’s certainly taking a wider view of the world. Perhaps they’re halfway around the world, peaceably going about their lives, something that human beings seem incapable of doing.
Readers who enjoyed ‘The Fall of Rome’ should also consider reading some of W.H. Auden’s other best-known poems. For example, ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats,’ ‘The Love Feast,’ and ‘Funeral Blues.’ The latter is also known as “Stop all the Clocks,” and is arguably Auden’s most famous poem. It is a morose elegy that describes the feelings associated with loss and grieving. There are several interesting twists in the poem and powerful statements that make each line feel as though it’s coming from the reader’s own heart.
In ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats,’ the poet taps into themes of life, loss, and the power of poetry. He takes a look at Yeats’ life and the power or lack thereof that poetry has to change the world. ‘The Love Feast’ references an early Christian ritual in which followers of Christ would gather and celebrate. It’s a complex poem, one that depicts contemporary life alongside religion. Additionally, our list of 10 of the Best W.H. Auden Poems might be of interest.