An introduction to the context and meaning of Auden’s poem about decadence and decay.
Auden’s early career as a poet was dominated by his political beliefs, which called for revolutionary change. However, it was not always possible for him to express these views clearly and openly – besides which, of course, art and artists have always exhibited the ‘autonomy’ that Trotsky diagnosed. In addition to explaining the shortcomings of society, therefore, Auden’s early work often veers off into myth, obscure symbology and other forms of obscure expression. He was not alone in this approach, since (from a variety of political standpoints) Eliot, Yeats and pound had all followed the same path.
In The Fall of Rome, Auden presents a rather simpler poem, at least on initial inspection. The poem is composed of seven four line stanzas, written primarily in iambic tetrameter and with a consistent rhyming scheme of abba. He presents a series of images of society in a state of advanced decrepitude or depravity. In the opening lines, Auden sets a scene of almost post-apocalyptic society: “The piers are pummeled by the waves;/ In a lonely field the rain/ Lashes an abandoned train;/ Outlaws fill the mountain caves.” Society appears to have broken down and the bonds that holds society together are disintegrating (readers might like to note that Britain does not have any mountains).
The second stanza follows thus: “Fantastic grow the evening gowns;/ Agents of the Fisc pursue/ Absconding tax-defaulters through/ The sewers of provincial towns.” The opening line indicates the moral turpitude angle: evening gowns are only worn by a privileged and probably urban elite and the fact that they have become ‘fantastic’ suggests excessive interest in the apparel of a small group of women and the dedication of resources to showing off wealth which could be much better used elsewhere (perhaps by revivifying the railway system, for example). British readers (and members of various other countries), looking at this stanza, will at once be reminded of the Roman occupation, since the Romans are believed to have brought with them such innovations as sewers and tax. As imperialists, the Romans required the British both to build the institutions that would develop their communities (i.e. the sewers) and then to pay for the privilege.
The poem continues with the theme of a society either on the brink of collapse or which has already stepped off the edge of the cliff and is plunging towards the ground but has not yet realised it.
Meanwhile, other parts of the world continue unabashed and largely indifferent: “Altogether elsewhere, vast/ Herds of reindeer move across/ Miles and miles of golden moss,/ Silently and very fast.”