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(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


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.

Robert Pinsky recently published a chapbook, "First Things to Hand."

("The Fall of Rome" appears in "W.H. Auden: Collected Poems," edited by Edward Mendelson. Modern Library. Copyright 2007 [and also 1976, 1991, 2007 by the Estate of W.H. Auden]. An expanded second edition of "W.H. Auden: Selected Poems" has just been published by Vintage International.)