This month marks the centennial of the birth of W.H. Auden (1907-73). Auden's characteristic view was outward rather than introspective. He embraced the ideas and issues of his time and thought about Marx and Freud, for whom he wrote a memorable elegy. As a poet, he was inventive, but not in what he found to say or in formal matters; his distinctive originality is in his omnivorous imagination. He included in his poetry every sort of thing that attracted his eye, every sort of word or speech he heard or read. He devised a tone, a feeling of wry, informed and doom-ridden attentiveness, as seen here:
The Fall of Rome
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 adroitness of this writing is strong, not merely showy, because the poem implies that the adroitness, too, is mortal and vulnerable, just as the mind that presents "cerebrotonic" and "fisc" knows that the last word will belong to "muscle-bound" and "very fast." The theme and materials of this poem were not new when Auden wrote it, but he knew how to give them permanent bite.