I write this in the gloomiest of moods. This week Britain voted in a Referendum to leave the European Union, with immediate and horrible results - £350 billion wiped off the economy within hours. There's a nasty nationalist mood brewing, the future of Europe is uncertain, and we have no good leaders with a plan. The dish-faced dullard David Cameron has resigned and will go down in history as the man who broke the country (and put his membrum virilis in a pig's head). The unspeakable Nigel Farage is honking his bilious saloon bar creed and what's left of the Left is in disarray. This will take a generation to resolve, or longer. My country is divided and there are bad times ahead for us all.'Write me a poem that will make me cry,' was Cyril Connolly's challenge to Auden in 1940. The result was this:
The Fall of Rome
(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 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.
© The Estate of W. H. Auden / Faber and Faber
Were it not for the date I'd suspect that, in the second verse was prompted by a viewing of Carol Reed's masterpiece The Third Man (1949), although it's possible that Graham Greene read the poem before he came up with Harry Lime. In fact the whole poem has a cinematic feel in its montage effects - like a storyboard.
'Cerebrotonic' means "relating to or resembling a personality type characterized by shyness, introspection, and emotional restraint". Stiff upper lip? I'm unsure what Cato is doing here - a contract with the butch Potemkin-like marines? Auden's double-focus on the ancient world and contemporary malaise is masterful, culminating in one of the greatest poetic images I can think of - herds of reindeer, that are more than herds, and much more than reindeer.