Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Poems to read while micturating : No.1 "The Fall of Rome" by W.H. Auden

I have written this as a contribution to World Toilet Day - which is today, apparently:

One of the many things oldsters don't warn us chaps about when we're in the full vigour of youth is that it's quite likely you'll end up spending a lot more time peeing. Whereas you were once able to sleep through the night and wake up with a bursting bladder, you'll probably find yourself having to pay several visits between saying your prayers and the alarm going off. And when you "go" - or, if you prefer, wee, micturate, urinate, have a wazz, point percy at the porcleain, piddle, take a leak, spend a penny or pass water -  whatever time of the day it is, it may take you longer than it used to.

The reasons for this are physiological and they can be worrying - but they mostly aren't. There are obviously inherent drawbacks to this phenomenon - the most obvious being disturbed sleep. But there are some benefits, too. The main one - for me - is that it provides just enough time to read a short poem (or a segment from a longer one). I try not to have a choice of more than two poetry books at any one time: I'm currently alternate between lucky-dipping my way through Paradise Lost and reading from Faber and Faber's W.H. Auden: Poems selected by John Fuller. There's one poem I keep returning to again and again: "The Fall of Rome". Partly that's because it's just about the right length for the job. But it's more than that - it's full of wonderful lines, couplets and images: "In a lonely field the rain/Lashes an abandoned train", "Private rites of magic send/The temple prostitutes to sleep","...muscle-bound Marines/Mutiny for food and pay", "Little birds with scarlet legs/Sitting on their speckled eggs" etc. And it ends with one of the most evocative images in post-War poetry, and a superb last line which tends to echo in the head as you return to whatever you were doing before nature interrupted:
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast. 
Lord, that's good! 

As if all that wasn't enough, there's the intriguing subject matter - the dying of an increasingly effete, fragmenting empire - neatly captured by MEP Daniel Hannan at the end of an intervention in the European Parliament here (what his audience made of it, God knows). Auden wrote the poem in 1947, and while some critics believe he's talking about America, it could obviously apply to just about any empire. (I would have included Auden's reading of the poem, but I can't abide his transatlanticisms - pronouncing "clerk" to rhyme with "berk" is perhaps excusable in the context, but making "fast" rhyme with "best" in the last line certainly isn't.)

In case you want to experiment, here's the whole poem:
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. 


No comments:

Post a comment