Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Fantastic grow the evening gowns

From What W.H. Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith.
“The Fall of Rome” is a portrait of decline. If Auden was at pains to stress the virtues of the civic sense and the city, he was also aware of how such things can fall apart. In this poem the images of such decline are particularly vivid:
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 …

Caesar’s double bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
On a pink official form.
Lines like that are memorable; indeed, they can get under one’s skin. When I see a picture of a glittering occasion, with fantastic evening gowns, I am sometimes tempted to think of the impermanence of empires; when I encounter a minor bureaucrat—a customs official, perhaps, annotating those largely useless forms that we have to fill in when we cross a border—I wonder whether he or she would not like to write in “I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK.” And as for the agents of the Fisc pursuing tax-defaulters through the sewers—that is pure Graham Greene, pure Harry Lime. When I read in the newspapers of the arrest of some financial criminal, I am tempted to imagine that the arrest took place in a sewer, a paysage moralisé if ever there was one.

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