Fall Rome Auden Essay

Not all modern classicists are as civilized as Glen Bowersock, whose expertise and understanding go far beyond whatever a quarter century at the Princeton Institute may have bestowed on him. These reprinted essays, covering some twenty years, are a serious contribution to the history of classical scholarship, looking [End Page 557] at its role in the work of poets (Cavafy to Auden, nicely including the latter's essay on the fall of Rome) and the attitudes of the better scholars (Gibbon to Burckhardt to Momigliano). In passing, these essays consider the role of gesture in speech and the contribution (on a Pompeian scale) of excavations to the history of taste; there are extended remarks on classicism in libretti and in the art of Edward Lear. The effect of reading these essays as a group might inspire some classicists to consider just how important what we do might be for the survival of civilized society and to lift their eyes from the straightness of whatever furrow they are ploughing.

Of course, not all "collected essays," kleine Schriften, are as worthwhile as these. Libraries often shun them, especially those generated by their authors for self-esteem. It makes one reflect on the wisdom of rereading what one wrote long ago—"did I really think that?" "that's a nice turn of phrase," "my god, how much I've forgotten." Bowersock need have no such qualms about this collection, and neither classicists nor their libraries should ignore it.

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June 14, 1947

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The piers are pummeled 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.

This article is part of The Nation’s 150th Anniversary Special Issue. Download a free PDF of the issue, with articles by James Baldwin, Barbara Ehrenreich, Toni Morrison, Howard Zinn and many more, here.

W.H. Auden (1907–1973) contributed many poems and critical essays to The Nation between 1938 and 1951. 

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