Decline and Fall

By John Frederick Nims 1913–1999
We had a city also. Hand in hand
Wandered happy as travellers our own land.   
Murmured in turn the hearsay of each stone   
Or, where a legend faltered, lived our own.   
The far-seen obelisk my father set
(Pinning two roads forever where they met)   
Waved us in wandering circles, turned our tread   
Where once morass engulfed that passionate head.

Cornice rose in ranges, rose so high
It saw no sky, that forum, but noon sky.   
Marble shone like shallows; columns too   
Streamed with cool light as rocks in breakers do.

O marble many-colored as reach of thought,   
Tones so recollected and so distraught.   
Golden: like swimmers when the August shore   
Brightens their folklore poses more and more.   
Or grey with silver: moon’s whirling spell   
Over the breathless olives we knew well;   
Ivory as shoulders there that summer-dressed   
Curve to come shyly naked, then find rest   
(The tresses love dishevelled leaning dazed   
And grateful). Or the wayward stone that blazed   
As cheeks do. Or as eyes half-lowered flare.   
Violet as veins are, love knows where.   
Fine coral as the shy and wild tonguetip,   
Undersea coral, rich as inner lip.

There was a stone to build on!
                                              Friezes ran
In strong chorales that where they closed began;   
And statues: each a wrung or ringing phrase   
In the soul’s passionate cadence of her days.

O stone so matched and massive, worked so well,   
Who could believe it when the first brick fell?   
Who could imagine the unlucky word
Would darken to the worldwide sigh we heard?   
How our eyes wrenched together and held fast   
Each face tightening to a chalky cast
(So poor a copy of one hour before).
Who could believe the gloom, the funnelled roar   
Of cornice falling, forum falling, all
Falling? Or dream it fallen? Not a wall
With eaves to route the rain. The rivers swelled   
Till roads groped in lakebottom. Nothing held   
Clean edge or corner. Caking, the black flood   
Left every luminous room tunnels of mud.
Earth shook: the columns walked, in midair clashed,   
And the steep stone exploded as it crashed.

Soon the barbarian swarmed like locusts blown   
Between the flood and spasm of our stone.   
Grunted to tug their huts and marble sties   
Where friezes broke like foam in the blue skies.   
Blue noses poked, recoiling as they found   
Our young and glad-eyed statues underground;   
Singing salvation, the lewd chisel pecks   
At boy and girl: one mutilated sex.

All our high moments cheapened—greed and grime   
Charred them in rickety stithies to quicklime.

Murderous world. That town that seemed a star   
Rose in our soul. And there the ruins are.   
We’ll not walk there again. Who’d wish to walk   
Where the rats gather and grey tourists talk?   
Who’d walk there even alive? Or bid his ghost   
Trail phosphor on the melancholy coast?

John Frederick Nims, “Decline and Fall” from Selected Poems (Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 1982). Used by permission of Bonnie Nims.

Source: Poetry (March 1954).


This poem originally appeared in the March 1954 issue of Poetry magazine

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March 1954
 John Frederick Nims


An important translator and previous editor of Poetry magazine, John Frederick Nims (1913—1999) was equally skilled as a poet. Although Nims was born in Michigan, he spent most of his life on the other side of the lake, in Chicago. Generally a classicist in technique, Nims is also well known for his witty epigrams.

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SUBJECT Living, Time & Brevity, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

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