The piers are pummelled by the waves;

Poems inspired by the fall of Rome are not new to this blog. I have already posted examples from du Bellay from the 16th century and Quevedo, from the 17th century. This poem from WH Auden, written in the 20th century has another take on this destruction of a great civilisation by making it more timeless, resonating with the collapse of societies in other times. Even today, such a collapse of order and societal structure is too often repeated in places like Syria, Yemen, Libya (themselves great Roman provinces with the remnants of Roman culture still existing). Auden’s Fall of Rome brings home the misery and helplessness induced by the disappearance of government and security. And if this could happen in Rome, the greatest power on earth, nowhere is safe.

The Fall of Rome
W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973
(for Cyril Connolly)

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
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.

From <;

The scenes successively depicted here are of desolation and disintegration, abandonment and the struggle for survival. All except the elite intellectual classes who delude themselves that all is well, through their imaginary friends and their trust, like Cato, in the enduring power of Roman virtue. But all else is falling apart, and it is the birds and animals who begin to take over, better adapted as they are to a constant imperative for survival. Just like in the Chernobyl exclusion zone…

The Poetry Dude


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