Published: Published Date – 12:30 AM, Wed – 10 August 22

Opinion: Allegories of the Nation

By Pramod K Nayar

That poetry is the most compressed form of expressing the strongest emotions is now a truism. Think of how Imtiaz Dharker in ‘They’ll Say: “She Must be From Another Country”’ describes a nation’s rulers:

fat old fools,
the crooks and thugs
who wear the uniform
that gives them the right
to wave a flag,
puff out their chests,
put their feet on our necks,
and break their own rules

When speaking of eroded values, collapsing national ideals and the disappearance of an equable social order under totalitarian regimes, thinkers write polemical pieces. And yet, it is still poetry that strikes the proverbial chord.

An astonishing allegory of such a collapse may be found in WH Auden. Auden’s ‘The Fall of Rome’ is a brilliant poem written with his characteristic syntactic precision and tonal control.  The poem was published in June 1947, two months before India became independent.

Cities Fall, Nature Returns

The poem opens with images of Nature pounding away at human structures:

The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train

Faced with Nature’s fury, humans retreat. The ‘outlaws’, says Auden, ‘fill the mountain caves’.

Auden is not speaking of just the ancient Roman Empire, because his reference to the train, a modern invention, gestures at the present. Rome then and cities now, are abandoned. Towards the end, Auden returns to a similar image of Nature:

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 energy of the last stanza contrasts stunningly with the quietude of the penultimate, in which the birds only sit and watch — literally a bird’s eye view — almost as though they are monitoring the collapse of a plague-ridden city. In the last stanza, the wilderness has begun to expand and the animals moving freely, and fast, to reclaim the land. Perhaps the reindeer are questing for new pastures. But the last line indicates the survival instincts of the herd which the humans seem to lack, resulting in their civilisation collapsing.

Civilisation’s Discontents

Freud’s famous phrase, ‘civilization and its discontents’, is captured in Auden’s versification of humanity’s collapse. In stanza two, he refers to the tax regime, which ‘pursue[s] tax offenders through/the sewers of provincial towns’ even as fancy-dress balls and partying goes on. Even rituals have decayed:

Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep

The high-profile litterateurs conceal the identities of their lovers by speaking of ‘imaginary friends’ and lovers. Disciplinarians like Cato may cite the Constitution and its ideals but to no avail because public morals and ethics have deteriorated:

Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extoll the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.

No one likes their job, although the privilege of office is what they all like, as Auden allegorises government services:

an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.

That the clerk has the temerity to declare this sentiment is Auden’s critique: in public service, one can be incompetent and dislike the job, but the government still rewards you.

Coming of the New

‘The Fall of Rome’ envisages collapse of the contemporary through an anachronism: ancient Rome. Even such an Empire fell, not necessarily due to external forces, but from implosion, the dismissal of older wisdom, the erosion of values. Auden’s insinuation is: nations and civilisations fall because they have rejected the wiser vision and handed over the reins to dictators and sycophants.

In another poem, ‘Spain’, Auden speaks of the ‘nocturnal terrors’ of totalitarianism, before turning to reconstructions of the nation. The voice of Life in the poem speaks, when addressed by assorted prayers:

And the life, if it answers at all, replies from the heart
And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city
O no, I am not the mover;
Not to-day; not to you. To you, I’m the

Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily duped:
I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be
Good, your humorous story.
I am your business voice. I am your marriage.

The Life of a nation is what its people make it: whether corrupt business voices or successful marriages, whether easily duped or just a witticism. Then Life asks:

What’s your proposal? To build the just city?
I will. I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic
Death? Very well, I accept, for
I am your choice, your decision. I am Spain.

The people must choose what nation we (re)build. Do we want to hand over Life to the ‘fat old fools/? Or do we want a ‘just city’? This exhortation has been heard, writes Auden, on ‘remote peninsulas’, ‘sleepy plains’ and even in ‘the corrupted heart of the city’. Hope in the form of this exhortation:

clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch
Through the unjust lands

Tomorrow, says the poem, there will be a ‘rediscovery’ of romantic love and music, but for this, ‘today, the struggle’. Auden’s exhortation is clear: the people need to fight for justice against an unfair regime:

Our moments of tenderness blossom
As the ambulance and the sandbag;
Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.

This is the cost one pays, suggests Auden, to return us to the state of peace and prosperity from the current one of death, corruption and oppression:

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,
The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder

When the poem ends, there is no utopia, but a people’s struggle towards a better society. Auden concludes by pondering over how History would record this process of destruction and rebuilding. It is up to us to decide how History will judge both: those who have lost but also those of us to let some communities and peoples lose. Auden’s conclusion is an amazing insight into the future:

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)



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