As I Walked Out One Evening
As I Walked Out One Evening
W. H. Auden 1940
W. H. Auden is considered one of the most important English poets of the twentieth century. He is noted for his strong lyrical voice, technical craftsmanship, and sharp intelligence. Auden quickly gained a reputation as a talented poet while still a young man (publishing his first book at only 26), and was considered by many during his lifetime to be a spokesperson for a whole generation of writers.
First published in the collection Another Time (1940), “As I Walked Out One Evening” describes an allegorical conversation between Love and Time as they discuss the power of love to conquer eternity. The speaker, walking down to the river one evening, overhears two lovers pledging their undying devotion to each other. Just as their promises reach the peak of melodrama, the clocks around the city begin to chime, interrupting the two. The speaker imagines this interruption as the clock’s way of reminding us we are mortal creatures, unable to transcend Time. In that chiming he hears a voice which scolds the lovers and their “crooked hearts.”
Auden was born in 1907 and was raised in northern England, the son of a doctor and a nurse. He received his primary education at St. Edmund’s School in Surrey and Gresham’s School in Kent. Auden’s early interest in science and engineering earned him a scholarship to Oxford University; however, his interest in poetry led him to switch his field of study to English. While at Oxford, Auden became familiar with modernist poetry, particularly that of T. S. Eliot, and he became a central member of a group of writers that included Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, a collective variously labeled the “Oxford Group” or the “Auden Generation.” In 1928 Auden’s first book, Poems, was privately printed by Spender. During the same year, Eliot accepted Auden’s verse play Paid on Both Sides: A Charade for publication in his magazine Criterion. After graduating from Oxford Auden lived for over a year in Berlin before returning to England to become a teacher. During the 1930s Auden traveled to Spain and China, became involved in political causes, and wrote prolifically. In this period he composed The Orators: An English Study (1932), an experimental satire that mixes poetry and prose; three plays in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood; two travel books—one of which was written with Louis Mac-Neice; and the poetry collection Look, Stranger! (1936; published in the United States as On This Island). Auden left England in 1939 and became a citizen of the United States. His first book as an emigrant, Another Time (1940), contains some of his best-known poems, among them “September 1, 1939,” and “Musée des Beaux Arts.” His 1945 volume The Collected Poetry, in which he revised, retitled, or excluded many of his earlier poems, helped solidify his reputation as a major poet. Throughout his career Auden won numerous honors and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (1947) and the National Book Award for The Shield of Achilles (1955). In his later years, Auden continued to teach, to deliver lectures, and to edit and review books. He wrote several more volumes of poetry, including City without Walls and Many Other Poems (1969), Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (1972), and the posthumously published Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (1974). He died while on a trip to Vienna in 1973. He is buried in Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey.
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This first stanza establishes a setting and a pace for the walk we are about to begin with the speaker. Auden introduces the time of day (“one evening”) and specific location (“Bristol Street”), which we might guess is in the city of Bristol, just west of London, England. Bristol Street is crowded this time of day, and the people moving together reminds the speaker of “fields of harvest wheat.” As we walk down the crowded street with the speaker we begin to feel the pace of his stride echoed in the rhythm of each line.
Notice too that Auden describes the wheat in terms of time, or when it is to be harvested. Fall, the harvest season, is often used in art as a metaphor for old age because it is the last stage of the life cycle, with the plants past bloom and fruit and cold winter coming. Here the speaker sees the crowd and thinks of the fields in the fall, the golden wheat, and our journey to our “winter” years.
After passing through the crowd, the speaker arrives at a “brimming river” where he hears two lovers talking under “an arch of the railway.” The poem becomes a dialogue which will extend for the rest of the stanzas, and here the scenery seems to reflect the mood of the lovers: the water in the river rises on its banks, the arch they stand under resembles a huge door to a cathedral or the gates of heaven. The two perhaps believe their love will keep them together forever, since “Love has no ending.”
The speaker eavesdrops on the lovers, and for the next several lines listens to their promises of eternal devotion. Their words seem almost absurd, like when they place their love on a geologic time scale. They conclude that their love will survive as long as it would take for China and Africa to slide together in continental drift, or for a river to find its course over a mountain. The “seven stars” in line 15 are probably the constellation Pleiades, known in mythology to be the seven sisters.
In these lines the lover makes perhaps the most grandiose claim; he asserts that the years will pass as fast as “rabbits” because he holds the “flower of the ages” in his hand, as if their love were so apart from time he could pluck all of history like a flower and offer it to her. Perhaps like many lovers, they are convinced their love is “the first love of the world.” This image is the last of several which imply that love can conquer time and keep the two together for eternity. But these lines also mark the end of the lover’s dialogue, which is cut short by the tolling of the city bells.
Just as the lovers reach their most exaggerated claims of devotion, “all the clocks in the city / began to whirr and chime.” The speaker imagines in the tolling bells another voice, perhaps responding to the youthful promises of the lovers. Line 22 begins a dialogue which will extend for the next eight stanzas; Auden gives the clocks human voices in a poetic device called “allegory.” Using allegory, a poet treats more abstract concepts like “time” and “justice” as if they were characters in a play, their names capitalized appropriately. In this way the clocks are able to speak for Time, warning the lovers “O let not Time deceive you, / You cannot conquer Time.” No matter how much they may love each other, it is not going to save them from the their own mortality.
The description of Time in these lines is compared to something that hides in the “burrows of the nightmare,” watching the lovers from the shadows and waiting for them to kiss just so it can interrupt with a cough. Whereas the dialogue of the lovers is filled with statements of eternal hope, the clocks quickly remind the two that Time is always there, lurking, clearing its throat like an impatient conductor waiting for the last few passengers to get aboard the dark train. We are not going to live forever, Time reminds us, because the day we are born is the first day counting down to our death, because “In headaches and in worry / Vaguely life leaks away.” Time’s “fancy” in line 31 may be death itself, which could arrive at any moment, even “tomorrow or today.” This horrible, raw truth may be the naked Justice mentioned a few lines previous, the mortal rules we must all follow.
Echoing the image of “harvest wheat” at the beginning of the poem, this stanza returns to the cycle of the seasons, the green valley of youth giving way to winter and its “appalling” snow that covers the ground. “Appalling” means “terrible,” but also literally means “to make pale.” The snow makes the hills white, “white” like the color of an old man’s hair or the pale faces of the sick and dying. The clocks seem to scold the arrogance of the lovers, telling them that not only is it impossible to conquer time, but rather Time itself “breaks the threaded dances / and the diver’s brilliant bow.”
Following the image of a diver’s descent from cliff to water, Time’s instructions for the lovers to “plunge your hands in water, / Plunge them in up to the wrist” may be a symbolic act of cleansing, similar to the ritual of baptism or the washing of a body before its burial. While their hands are submerged, Time commands the lovers to look at themselves in the mirrored surface of the water and “wonder what you’ve missed.” The lovers up until now had only been looking forward; here Time reminds them to look back and take inventory of their short lives.
The tone shifts in the next two stanzas, taking on almost fairy-tale or nursery-rhyme qualities. The images become more fanciful and absurd, such as a glacier knocking in a cupboard and a desert sighing in a bed. Even the crack starting in the teacup widens until we can see the road we are walking down in life for what it is: “A lane to the land of
- Tell Me the Truth About Love is an audio cassette of Auden reading his own work.
- Auden is included on the audio cassette The Caedman Treasury of Modern Poets Reading Their Own Poetry.
the dead.” The tone shift to a more childlike voice (while still describing the morbid reality we face) gives these lines an even spookier effect, the soundtrack and the scene not quite right for each other, leaving us feeling uneasy. Time goes on for another stanza in this nursery-rhyme voice, invoking images from “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Jack and Jill.” Unlike their moral and innocent counterparts, the characters in these stanzas are a bit more perverse, the giant “enchanting to Jack” and Jill—seduced—who “goes down on her back.”
Bringing us back to the water’s reflection, Time commands the lovers again to “look in the mirror,” to look inside themselves and realize who they really are. What does Time want them to see? Perhaps their status as “fallen” creatures expelled from the garden of eternal beauty and life. According to Judeo-Christian mythology, man was expelled from Eden for his sins and willingness to be corrupted. As a result, we are mortals who are given a short time to walk on the earth, no longer in control of time but prisoner to it, as “Life remains a blessing / Although [we] cannot bless.”
The mirror of the previous stanza gives way to a window in line 53, as if the reflective surface faded and the lovers now stare through clear glass. Realizing their mortal fate, their “tears scald and start,” blurring their vision. The corruption introduced in lines 45-48 seems to resurface in this stanza. These lines seem to trace Judeo-Christian mythology which cites our own sin and corruption as the reason for our mortal lives; in other words, Adam and Eve had the chance to live in a garden of eternal love, but were seduced by Satan and forced to leave.
After eight stanzas of allegorical dialogue where Time scolds the lovers for their arrogance, these last four lines return the reader to the dramatic situation of the poem—the two lovers near the river. Just as sudden as they had started, the bells stop their chiming, and we realize the whole imagined dialogue may have only spanned the time it took for the clock tower to toll 8, 9, or 10 times.
The dramatic situation of the poem may be as simple as this: the speaker walks down to the river and hears the lovers singing; the city clocks chime the hour and interrupt the lovers. But in that brief chiming, the speaker hears the underlying meaning of the moment. No matter what the lovers may’ promise each other, the clock is ticking, and their time on this earth is measured out in hours, days, months and years.
Before the speaker realizes how far his mind had drifted, “the lovers they were gone,” perhaps final proof of their impermanence. Even for the speaker it is “late, late in the evening” by the end of the poem. But like the cycle of seasons we pass through, Time will continue as we come and go, just as the river brimming nearby will continue to flow, carving its path forever deeper toward the ocean.
“As I Walked Out One Evening” is a conversation between a lover and the clocks that interrupt his claims of eternal devotion. No matter what promises the lover makes—“Till China and Africa meet, / And the river jumps over the mountain / And the salmon sing in the street”—Time will be watching from the shadows, ready to remind them (as they are about to kiss) that another hour has passed. The lovers realize that they are one hour closer to their mortal fate. This poem uses allegory to provide a voice for Time, and Time uses that voice to scold the young lovers for their foolish hopefulness. The message Time conveys to the lovers is clear: “In headaches and in worry / Vaguely life leaks away.” Our stay on this planet is metered out, hour by hour, day by day, and like the hourglass sand pouring out since birth, “the desert sighs in the bed.”
Set as a backdrop to this dialogue between mortality and eternity is the “brimming, … deep river” where the speaker stops and overhears the lovers. Rivers are often used as metaphors for Time because they flow seemingly forever, from horizon to horizon, and we are too small in perspective to be able to see either a source or a destination. We can walk up to the bank and put a foot in the cold water, but the whole river keeps flowing past us. The chimes of the clock tower remind us of Time passing.
Cycle of Life
Underlying the theme of Time is the cycle of life, or seasons revolving like a smaller gear turning a larger wheel. The speaker may already be thinking about the passing seasons of his own life when the crowds on the pavement remind him of “harvest wheat.” Auden describes the wheat in terms of time: fall, the harvest season, is often used in art as a comparison, or metaphor, for old age. It is the last stage of the life cycle—the plants past bloom and fruit, the cold winter imminent. Here the speaker sees the crowd and thinks of the fields in autumn, the golden wheat, and is perhaps reminded of the cycle we all pass through in heading toward our “winter” years. Even the young lovers will grow pale with old age, just as “into many a green valley / Drifts the appalling snow.”
Auden portrays Time allegorically in almost sinister terms, inhabiting the “burrows of nightmare” and watching the lovers from the shadows. It waits until they are just about to seal their love with a kiss before it coughs its objection. The same church bells that chime the hour also toll for the dead, and on this night near the river both bells have the same tenor.
The bells serve as a scheduled reminder that “the crack in the teacup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” The speaker, walking along the river down Bristol Street, may have found himself suddenly further down that lane than expected, finding himself located somewhere between the lovers and “all the clocks in the city.” Standing there at in the midst of the chiming bells, he loses track of time, hearing an entire song in response to the lover’s singing. He suddenly realizes how much time has passed: “It was late, late in the evening, / The lovers they were gone.”
W. H. Auden is highly regarded for his formally crafted and musical lines. “As I Walked Out One Evening” is constructed using four-line stanzas called quatrains, the second and fourth lines locking rhymes to create on overall poetic form known as “common measure.” Emily Dickinson also used this form on a regular basis, and its origins are old. Each line holds three stressed syllables which echo the speaker’s footsteps toward the river, and as we walk down the crowded street with the speaker, we begin to feel the pacing of his stride in the rhythm of each line.
Each pattern of accents in a line is called a “foot,” and in this poem’s lines we feel the alternating feet stepping forward: “the crowds upon the pave ment / were fields of Har vest wheat. ” The “ta-dum ta-dum ” unstressed and stressed metric foot is called an iamb. Iambic meter is probably the most familiar to our ears, used commonly by William Shakespeare, Robert Frost, John Milton and many rap artists writing today.
The years immediately surrounding the publication of “As I Walked Out One Evening” influenced Auden on many levels. In the late 1930s, he left England and moved to America. His departure and subsequent application for United States citizenship left many British critics feeling betrayed. Many believed Auden possessed a universal voice that was deeply in touch with their own hopes, fears, and resentments. His move to America on the eve of World War II marked the dominating influence of American political power and culture.
Auden traveled to America in January, 1939, with fellow poet and friend Christopher Isherwood aboard the French liner the Champlain (which would later be sunk by naval mines near Bordeaux during World War II). The two settled quickly into the New York literary scene, attending readings and parties in Greenwich Village.
It was at one of these parties that the poet met 18-year-old Chester Kallman. The two began having tea together regularly at Auden’s apartment, and by the beginning of June, Auden was convinced he was deeply in love. He wrote his brother: “It’s really happened at last after all these years. Mr. Right has come into my life. This time, my
Topics for Further Study
- Write a poem from the point of view of a speaker who walks into the school cafeteria only to overhear the beginning of a conversation the next table over. Craft the dialogue into formal quatrains, like Auden’s style. Use only three stressed syllables per line. The poem does not have to rhyme. Halfway through the poem, the cafeteria bell should ring, and the speaker will imagine what the clocks might be saying to the room of eating students. Finish the poem in dialogue, keeping the tight structure. Compare results and discuss.
- What do you think Auden is referring to when he writes “Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless?” What about “You shall love your crooked neighbour / with your crooked heart?” How would you describe the speaker’s impression of the lovers?
- How do you feel the poem would change if the speaker responded to the lover’s conversation rather than using the clocktower speak allegorically about Time? Do you think the speaker agrees more with the argument for Love or for Time? Discuss your answers using examples from the poem.
dear, I really believe it’s marriage.” He told another friend around the same time that he was “mad with happiness.” He would later explain to an interviewer he never really had loved anyone before, and that “[Chester] became so much part of my life that I keep forgetting that he is a separate person. I have also discovered what I never knew before, the dread of being abandoned and left alone.”
This love affair may have been on Auden’s mind as he wrote “As I Walked Out One Evening.” There was a sense of doom on a national scale as well, and as Auden and Kallman returned from their honeymoon, the war in Europe exploded. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939, and that night Auden composed a poem. One of his most famous, it is a farewell to his generation’s
Compare & Contrast
- 1940: Karl Pabst introduces the Jeep, a lightweight, 4-wheel drive, off-road vehicle. The United States military would purchase more than 649,000 over the next five years during World War II.
1998: Jeeps are available from American Motors, popular as all-terrain vehicles as well as for city driving.
- 1940: Germany invades Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Denmark and Romania, extending its control across Europe. America provides weapons to England, but hesitates joining the war against Germany.
1945: Defeated, Germany is divided into four sections to be partitioned by England, Russia, and the United States.
1949: Communist leaders divide Germany in half, constructing a wall through the center of Berlin. East Germany would become communist while the West stays democratic.
1989: With the decline of communist power in Russia, East Germany removes the Berlin wall and unites a city that had been divided for forty years.
1998: Germany is growing to become a major power in the European Economic Community.
- 1940: The Olympics in Tokyo and Helsinki are canceled due to the war.
1944: Officials decide not to schedule the Olympics in London again because of the war.
1998: Olympic officials ask that the United States postpone any possible military actions against Iraq in honor of the Olympic treaty. The conflict is avoided for the time being, and the winter Olympics take place as scheduled in Nagano, Japan.
“clever hopes.” The 1930s in England had been known as the “Age of Auden,” but in 1939 he deliberately distanced himself from the man he was the decade earlier.
Auden made the transition from British subject to American citizen, from liberal progressive to Orthodox Episcopalian. And perhaps most important, like the person singing under the railroad arch in the poem, he was in love for the first time. But unfortunately, this love did not last: Kallman had been unfaithful, and a year after the poems were published, the two parted, sending Auden into a rage which would leave him weeping and cynical.
W. H. Auden is often categorized with the modernist poets or with a group of “left-wing” British poets, including Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and Cecil Day-Lewis. As tempted as critics are to place Auden within a tradition, many agree he is unique because of his well-crafted, evocative poetry that effectively captured the political and cultural mood of the day.
The poems collected in Another Time, a volume including “As I Walked Out One Evening” are the first works Auden completed in America after moving from England in 1939. The publication of the collection marked a transition for Auden. As Richard Johnson asserts in The Directory of Literary Biography, “the poems mark one of the balance points of Auden’s career, where lyrical gift, formal discipline, and ethical impulse come together, with considerable vitality, and in an idiom almost unique in modern poetry.”
The editors of The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry characterize Auden’s early work as being preoccupied with “impending doom, of our general complicity in seemingly individual evil conduct.” This is perhaps evident in such lines as “the crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead” and “You shall love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” The editors also point out his fondness for “invoking large forces—mountains, floods, glaciers, deserts—as symbols of human needs or defects.” Auden invokes three of these in “As I Walked Out One Evening,” almost in precise order, including the “brimming river,” a glacier that “knocks in the cupboard” and a “desert [sighing] in the bed.”
Jeannine Johnson is a freelance writer who has taught at Yale University. In the following essay Johnson explains how Auden’s ballad addresses the ideas of both the authenticity and durability of love.
W. H. Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening” has the rhythm and sound of a chant or song. In fact, the poem was first published in 1938 under the title “Song.” The poem as a whole is a song, and so are its two main statements. The poem begins and ends with the poet’s voice, and in between are the voice of a singing lover and a chorus of chiming clocks. The second song is a response to the first, as the clocks contradict the lover’s claim to the timelessness of his passion. All of this is contained in the poet’s melody about his stroll through London and through life.
The poem is composed in ballad meter, a form that nineteenth-century American poet Emily Dickinson often used. A ballad is a kind of song, and thus a poem written in ballad meter has some of the qualities of music. A poem in ballad meter contains quatrains, or groups of four lines together. In each of the quatrains, the last word of the second and fourth lines rhyme: for example, in the first stanza “Street” rhymes with “wheat.” These rhymes create a pattern that, as the poem progresses, our ears come to expect. In choosing the ballad form, Auden differs from many other twentieth-century poets who have preferred to write without rhyming their verses. One effect of the rhyme in Auden’s poem is to create the informal feeling of a folksong. But this is not a simplistic piece, as the poet shows by making several clever rhymes such as “sing” and “ending” and “wrist” and “missed” and by incorporating inexact rhymes (called “near rhymes” or “slant rhymes”) such as “hold” and “world” and “is” and “kiss.”
What Do I Read Next?
- The editor to first publish Auden’s poetry is the poet T. S. Eliot. His work, including The Waste Land, is considered central to the Modernist poetry movement.
- Best known for his award-winning poetry, Auden’s critical and travel prose is also available in The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, Volume I.
- For a brief critical overview of virtually every poem Auden published, read John Fuller’s 1970 book A Reader’s Guide to W. H. Auden.
- Another Auden poem from the same collection Another Time is “Musée des Beaux Arts,” included in Poetry For Students, Vol. 1.
A regular syllable count reinforces the rhyming pattern. In traditional ballad form, the first and third lines contain seven or eight syllables, while the second and fourth lines contain six. There are always three accented beats in each of the four lines. For instance, in the first line of the poem the words “I” and “out” and the first syllable of “evening” should be read with more emphasis than the other syllables in the line. Auden varies the number of syllables in “As I Walked out One Evening,” but the second and fourth lines are usually shorter than the first and third, and he always assigns three strong stresses to a line.
The title of the poem tells us that the time is evening which, as its name suggests, is a period when day and night are evenly balanced. This is important because the poem tries to balance two different ideas expressed by the two songs. The poet indirectly invites us to compare, or weigh against each other, the conflicting philosophies of the lover and the clocks. On the one hand, the lover argues that at least one part of human life—love—is eternal and eternally youthful. On the other hand, the clocks contend that all of life is subject to time and decay. Though the poet does not want to deny the lover’s idealism, he ultimately gives more credit to the clocks’ pragmatic attitude.
The poet recalls walking among crowds of Londoners in the early evening. He hears someone singing from below a railroad bridge, “Love has no ending.” Although the poet is among lots of other people, he is somewhat isolated. He does not see the singer, and he seems to be the only one to hear the song. We might imagine, then, that the poet is listening to his own thoughts rather than receiving ideas from outside sources.
In any case, the lover’s song continues as he makes exaggerated promises to his beloved: “I’ll love you till the ocean / Is folded and hung up to dry / And the seven stars go squawking / Like geese about the sky.” The singer claims that his affection will last until the end of the world and even until the end of the universe. These are conventional boasts that most of us have heard before. By putting these familiar words in the mouth of the lover, Auden may be indicating that the lover’s feeling is universal and therefore important.
Conversely, though, the lover’s common phrases may suggest that, despite his protests, his love is not unique and is therefore insignificant. There is some indirect evidence for this idea. The “seven stars” refer to a group of bright stars called the Pleiades, or seven sisters, in the constellation Taurus. According to ancient Greek myth, the hunter Orion was in love with these sisters, although they did not return his love. Orion pursued them for a long time but was never successful in capturing any of them. Eventually Zeus, the king of the Greek gods, took pity on the sisters and installed them in the heavens as stars. This story is about selfish and unrequited passion. Its presence here may imply that the lover in the poem does not possess a true or real love.
More important than the question of love’s authenticity is the question of its durability. After the lover sings that his feeling has existed from the beginning of time and will last until its end, all the city clocks respond with a song of their own: “O let not Time deceive you, / You cannot conquer time.” Since the purpose of clocks is to measure minutes and hours, it is not surprising that they speak of the monotony and authority of time. The clocks’ song is more mechanical and regular than the lover’s. They “whirr and chime” and argue that time is more powerful than anything human, even love. “Time watches from the shadow / And coughs when you would kiss.” Time is a stealthy and inescapable force that can disrupt joyful moments and can replace a kiss—which brings people together—with a cough—which drives people apart. The clocks maintain that time is so strong because, for each of us, our lifespan is finite. Such limits make our daily choices difficult, create regret, and render life burdensome. As the timepieces tell it, “In headaches and in worry / Vaguely life leaks away.”
The clocks continue, and we see that time not only presents minor anxieties and small agonies such as headaches, but it also brings larger hazards: “The glacier knocks in the cupboard, / The desert sighs in the bed, / And the crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” A cupboard, bed, and tea-cup are all objects found in the home. Normally this is a familiar and safe place, but immense powers from the natural world threaten us even here. Death, the greatest danger of all, also lingers in this domestic place. The cracked tea-cup is proof that things wear out as time passes, and it is symbolic of the human condition. We, too, deteriorate and steadily approach death because time is almighty.
Auden personifies the clocks by allowing them to speak. In reality, of course, these machines do not have the capacity for human language. The clocks’ argument, like the lover’s, may well be taking place inside the poet’s head. The poet is thinking about, or reflecting on, the nature of human life, and in the clocks’ song there are several references to vision and to literal reflections. In one of these the timepieces urge, “O look, look in the mirror, / O look in your distress; / Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless.” Here, the mirror reflects an image of sadness, yet the negative tone of this and preceding stanzas is qualified somewhat by the statement that “Life remains a blessing.” Nevertheless, the clocks make it clear that we are unable to appreciate life’s pleasures, and they give one final order: “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” According to the clocks, we love only partially, and incorrectly at that.
The clocks’ long narration undercuts the lover’s optimism and certainty. Auden gives the clocks three times as many stanzas as the lover in which to state their ideas about life, love, and time. This imbalance, coupled with the fact that the time-keepers get the last word in the debate, seems to show that their philosophy is the dominant one. But in fact the clocks do not get the last word in the poem. In the final stanza, the poet is finished quoting them, and he returns to speak in his own voice. Many hours have elapsed since the beginning of the poem. The crowds are gone, and so are the lover and his beloved. The clocks have fallen silent, and, the poem concludes, “the deep river ran on.” This last line may be hopeful: it might indicate that the cycle recorded in the poem will repeat itself and that lovers and other idealists will again sing of their hopes and passions, despite the dire pronouncements of clocks and other realists. Conversely, this final line may be pessimistic: the river seems to be symbolic of time’s relentless forward motion. The river, like the “appalling snow,” the glacier, and the desert, appears to have little concern for the human world and is unaffected by our pleasures and sorrows. Regardless of our fate, nature and time will march on.
The poet seems to advance the clocks’ message over the lover’s. He cannot deny that love is diminished by the difficulties and limitations of life. However, perhaps one aspect of human life—poetry—will also move ahead endlessly. The ballad form in which this poem is written may, in theory, continually renew itself. The poet’s consistent rhymed quatrains mimic the regular ticks of a clock, but the poem’s chimes are under human control. “As I Walked Out One Evening” and other individual poems must end, but poetry as an art and as a representative of human achievement has the potential to live on.
Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Bruce Meyer is the director of the creative writing program at the University of Toronto. He has taught at several Canadian universities and is the author of three collections of poetry. In the following essay, Meyer discusses how Auden uses the ballad form to present a poem about the struggle for love in modern society.
In the “Prologue” to The Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer hangs an brooch around the neck of his Prioress, and the jewel is inscribed with the Latin phrase Amor vincit omnia, or “love conquers all.” Countless generations of poets have returned to this same theme to address the issue of the power of love. In The Sonnets Shakespeare points out that the great enemies of love and the poetic ideal are time and the world, neither of which have any bearing on or regard for beauty. Indeed the great subject of love poetry is, by contradiction, struggle, and the need to hold back the world, as in Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” in which the poet laments, “Had we but world enough and time.” W. H. Auden’s love ballad “As I Walked Out One Evening” takes up the cause of love in the face of a perverse and degenerate modern world that is just as time-bound and corrupting, if not more so, as the worlds known by Shakespeare, Marvell, and the great love poets of the past. The lover’s promise “Love has no ending” in line 8 is a universal pledge of constancy that others have taken up, such as Philip Larkin in the closing lines of “Arundel Tomb” (“What will survive of us is love”). The lines that follow in Auden’s ballad, “I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you / Till China and Africa meet” remind the reader of the pledge Robert Burns made in his beautiful song, “My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose:” “Till all the seas gang dry my dear / And rocks melt with the sun / And I will love thee still my dear / Though sands of time should run.” But Auden locates his love pledge in the midst of a conundrum. The modern world and all its perversions stand in direct contradiction to the beauty, innocence, and simplicity of the lover’s pledge. The solitary persona of “As I Walked Out One Evening” must make his way in a world that despises love and denigrates the eternal with the brute force of the temporal.
The poem, which takes the ballad form, is in keeping with the eighteenth–century English tradition of “the progress piece,” in which a journey is described and various landmarks are pointed out along the way. For Auden, however, the journey is an evening stroll on a night in the middle of the twentieth century, and the landmarks are, at best, bathetic reminders of how far the contemporary world has drifted from the poetic ideals laid down by the traditions of poetic literature. Along the way, on a casual evening walk “down Bristol Street,” the persona encounters crowds (who bear a vague resemblance to the crowds pouring over London Bridge in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”), clocks (the great poetic symbol of entropy, pressure, and decay), and a tawdry allusion to nursery rhyme characters such as Jack and the Beanstalk and Jack and Jill, who have been reduced to street prostitutes. More than being a walk or “progress piece” through the streets of a typical modern city, “As I Walked Out One Evening” is a journey through the experiential, an account of a progress not to a destination but to the realization that in the flow of time the only redeeming human value is the pledge of love between two people.
What is curious about Auden’s choice of poetic form is that the ballad traditionally focuses narratively on a dramatic episode. The chief episode in “As I Walked Out One Evening” is not just the love pledge that the persona overhears on his stroll,
“… ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ is a journey through the experiential, an account of a progress not to a destination but to the realization that in the flow of time the only redeeming human value is the pledge of love between two people.”
but the realization that the only saving grace for the world is love—“You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart”—and that the entire scope of humanity is in some way corrupt. What redeems the world, however, is that even those who are corrupt are still capable of love, and that love must start somewhere. The declaration “O look, look in the mirror, / O look in your distress; / Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless” suggests that love is contingent upon the capacity of the individual to commit themselves to an act of spiritual generosity. If the world is loveless, Auden appears to say, it is because we lack the courage of commitment. This message, couched in the ballad form with its short, four–foot lines and its simple yet effective abab rhyme, is meant to strike a chord. The notion of the ballad form is that its enticing meter and its inviting yet direct narrative are meant to be remembered—hence its popularity and recurring appeal. As a “populist” poetic form, the ballad is meant to be memorized and recited or sung and to function as a vehicle for messages that are meant to have broad and lasting appeal. One is reminded of “Lord Randal,” “Sir Patrick Spens” and “Barbara Allan” as examples of how the ballad form can be put to effective use. Auden’s point in choosing the ballad form is that the message of love, even in the face of temporal challenges, must be heard and spread. As if by necessity, Auden is not only declaring the virtue of love, but also the seemingly endless difficulties that love encounters as a bond between willing and generous human beings.
Auden was aware of the musical aspects inherent in “As I Walked Out One Evening.” John Fuller reminds us that Auden saw the poem as “a pastiche of folksong” in the tradition of Burns and A. E. Housman. Fuller also points out that the first two stanzas contain images of “fullness and fruition” when Auden compares the “crowds upon the pavement” to “fields of harvest wheat” and tells us that the river is “brimming.” But these Arcadian suggestions aside, the moment of pledge is located not in a golden vale or some suitably bucolic location, but under a railway arch, a bathetic venue that locates the action of the poem in the undeniably modern setting of the grimy, industrial modern world. Even the snow, Fuller mentions, is “appalling snow.” This is not the world of the ideal, but the world that seeks out a fading vision of the innocent and the true.
As in many of his other poems from the late 1930s, such as “The Unknown Citizen” and “Musée des Beaux Arts,” Auden juxtaposes the extemporal and the poetic with the daily realities of life in an industrial society. The beloved, who is addressed by the overheard lover in stanza 5, is heralded as “The Flower of the Ages, / And the first love of the world,” high praise even for the most remarkable of beloveds. What Auden is doing is locating the moment of the pledge beyond the temporal world in a realm that is still populated by the beloveds of the “Song of Solomon”—the realm of the ideal. Stanza 6 answers this directly with a statement on the nature of the world: “But all the clocks in the city / Began to whirr and chime: / ’O let not Time deceive you, / You cannot conquer Time.” The capitalization on Time serves to personify the concept as a functioning villain in the little drama of love against the world. “Time,” says Auden, inhabits “the burrows of the Nightmare / Where Justice naked is,” as if all the universal truths are in peril for their safety.
True to the conventions of love poetry, into which Auden has deftly fit his ballad, the world is an unpleasant, if not dangerous place in which things fall apart and entropy runs riot over beauty and human values no matter how determined they may be. In terms of Auden’s political message, that the human race must be warned against its enemies, the “glacier in the cupboard” and that “desert” in the “bed” are symptoms of a much larger problem in the world that can only be corrected through small acts of personal commitment and declaration. The world, Auden seems to suggest, is worth saving if only we have the moral courage to find the strength within ourselves to pursue virtue rather than perversion. The answer lies “in the mirror,” and ultimately in ourselves. The poem affirms the capacity of the individual to love, which is a positive note of reinforcement and which links “As I Walked Out One Evening” to Auden’s other poems of the period—poems that constantly remind us of our capacity to reform the world through small acts of dedication.
Even love, however, can run riot. The oversexed behaviour of the perverse incarnations of the archetypally innocent Jack and Jill is paralleled by the parodic treatment of the language of love in stanzas 4 and 5 in which the lover declares his undying love “Till China and Africa meet” and “the salmon sing in the street.” The overused language of love, its hyperbole and its stretched conceits (spread far thinner than any conceit dreamed of in the love poems of a John Donne or an Elizabeth Barrett Browning) becomes totally absurd by the time the reader reaches stanza 6. Here the lover, in a fit of pledge-craft, promises to love his beloved until “the ocean / Is folded and hung up to dry / And the seven stars go squawking / Like geese about the sky.” Comic as these “forced images” may be, they serve to underscore the poem with a dark subtext—that the language of love is something that must not only be expressed, but must also be mediated and creatively controlled. The distance between the pledge maker of “As I Walked Out One Evening” and Andrew Marvell in “To His Coy Mistress” is enormous, and Auden appears to suggest—rather playfully—that love itself has become something of an absurd cliché. There is also a strong suggestion on Auden’s part that poetry itself is suffering from abuse at the hands of amateurs. One of the answers to the ills of the contemporary world may be to restore meaning and power to language and dignity to the art of poetry; this was Auden’s personal mission as a poet. But however absurd the language of love may become in the hands of modern amateurs, love is still a human necessity and one that must be pursued as both a natural instinct and as a saving grace.
In the final stanza of the poem, the threat of time appears to have become absented. “The clocks have ceased their chiming, / And the river deep ran on.” The river image picks up as a functioning timepiece where the clocks leave off. Archetypally, rivers imply time, death and inevitability. The strange use of the word “deep” as an adjective in the final line is reminiscent of the use of “deep” in Genesis 1 where The Bible announces that before the act of divine creation set the universe in order “There was darkness upon the face of the deep.” This association of “deep” with chaos and disorder is Auden’s final warning of the ballad. The river that was “brimming” at the start of the poem when the action was located in “evening,” is now coursing darkly through a chaotic night in which “the lovers” are “gone” and only the persona of the poem remains to bear witness to the emptiness that has overtaken the once lively civic scene he encountered on his casual stroll. The implication seems to be that without love, there is nothing, and that the alternative to love, human presence, human activity, and human observation is a dark, isolating, and horrible experience bereft of all activity except witness. As a note of warning that we must love each other at all costs, Auden seems to be sounding a grim, almost post-Christian note that there is no alternative to love, regardless of how badly that love is expressed. Any contact, any attempt to reach beyond the hedonism of the “Lily-white Boy” or “Jack” and “Jill” is a welcome respite from the complete isolation that marks the poem’s ending. Auden reinforces his sense of warning in the opening line of the final stanza with the phrase “It was late, late in the evening,” as if Time itself has finally vanquished the lovers, their hopes, and the truths contained in those hopes. Read as either a sad poem of isolation and detached, loveless observation, or as a signal to readers not only of the possibilities of commitment but of the necessities of love, “As I Walked Out One Evening” reminds us of the passions, the frailties and the dignities to which love inspires us—if only as sojourners who stroll out for an evening to mingle with the crowds and by chance discover beauty in foolish absurdity and possibilities for life in a world and nature set against our best aspirations.
Source: Bruce Meyer, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Aidan Wasley is a writer and instructor at Yale University. In the following essay, Wasley points out how Auden’s perception about the power of poetry—its ability to outlast love, death, and time—is expressed in “As I Walked Out One Evening.”
W. H. Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening” is, as Auden himself described it, a “pastiche of folksong.” That is, it incorporates a number of features of traditional forms of oral poetry, particularly those of the folk ballad. Customarily, ballads are short–verse narratives, characterized by strong rhymes and heavy metrical patterns, which make them easy to memorize and to recite, and attest to their origins as popular song. Ballads often express the drama of their subject—usually love, death, or some significant public event—through dialogue or the voice of an unnamed narrator who speaks as a kind of generalized representative of collective sentiment. We can find all of these qualities in Auden’s poem, which recounts a surreal debate between a rapturous lover and an array of admonitory clocks on the nature of love, death, and time. The nameless speaker of the poem, whose observations in the first and last stanzas frame the debate, seems to stand outside of the world of the argument, even outside of time, despite his apparently specific locale, “out one evening / Walking down Bristol Street.” The speaker’s perspective is a distanced, ironic one, which offers commentary on, but not engagement with, the things he sees and hears. His is the voice of the detached, omniscient observer, like that of the artist or poet who articulates or describes events around him, but does not participate in them.
The question of poetry’s engagement and involvement with the world was an extremely important one for Auden. Throughout his early poetic career, many of Auden’s poems had addressed the issue of the relation between poetry and politics, a theme whose urgency was underscored by the catastrophic political events that were sweeping Europe during the 1930s. In a well-known poem called “Spain,” written seven months before this one, Auden had exhorted his readers to join in the fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War (Auden himself enlisted as an ambulance driver during that conflict). Auden was widely known as the leader of a group of highly political young poets who endorsed socialist ideals, writing poems in the service of public awareness and a belief that poetry could help make a difference in what Auden, in “Spain,” called “the struggle.” In this poem, though, written after Auden’s somewhat disillusioned return to England from Spain, we can perhaps see the poet, in the figure of the dispassionate, analytical spectator, stepping back from the notion that a poet’s words can help stop wars or convince people to live justly. Auden’s changing sense of poetry’s role in the world would reach its most famous expression just over a year later in his elegy for Yeats (written following Auden’s emigration to the United States, on the eve of World War II), which asserts “Poetry makes nothing happen.” In recognition that poetry could neither help ensure the defeat of the Spanish Fascists, nor prevent the calamity that was about to engulf all of Europe, Auden tried to redefine poetry’s relationship to the world outside it. While poetry cannot precipitate social change or public action, he decided, it could be a form of action in itself. It is, he claims in the Yeats elegy, “a way of happening, a mouth.” Poetry, says Auden, is what “survives,” and it is this survival in the face of the world’s assaults—its capacity to speak even after those who wrote it or those it recorded have been swept away—that gives poetry a kind of power over death and time. This is a theme we will see addressed in “As I Walked Out One Evening.”
The first two stanzas of the poem set the stage for the debate between the lover and the clocks and introduce images and ideas that will recur throughout the poem. The scene it describes is a distinctly modern and urban one, with its “streets,” “pavements,” “crowds,” and “railways.” This both recalls the “Unreal City” of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (Auden was heavily influenced by Eliot) and announces that though the poet may be employing the ancient rural folk-ballad form, he is appropriating it for his own nontraditional purposes. The speaker’s account of what he sees and hears on his walk subtly prefigure the poem’s concern with the themes of death and time. The crowds are “fields of harvest wheat” ready to be cut down by time’s scythe; the river is “brimming,” connoting eyes filling with tears; and the lover—whose place “under an arch of the railway” implies a less lofty romantic encounter than his song would suggest—sings a song of constant, eternal love beneath a modern symbol of transit and transience. The lover’s song in the third, fourth, and fifth stanzas, with its colorful claims of originality and unending devotion, closely echoes in form and imagery a very famous love song by eighteenth-century Scottish Romantic poet Robert Burns titled “A Red, Red Rose” that addresses the poet’s lover in similarly florid terms (and a Scots accent):
O My Love’s like a red, red rose,
That’s newly sprung in June;
O My Love’s like the melody
That’s sweetly played in tune.
As fair thou art, my bonnie lass,
So deep in love am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till all the seas gang dry,
Till all the seas gang dry, my dear,
And rocks melt with the sun:
O I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands of life shall run.
Auden’s lover makes comparable protestations, insisting that his love will also endure longer than the mountains, oceans, stars, even time itself. The subtle irony here is that the very claims the lover is making for the uniqueness and permanence of his love are the same claims that have been made by countless lovers and poets before him. His assertion of his own originality is itself a poetic cliche. His identification with a particular kind of Romantic poetry also suggests that one of the secondary debates this poem is enacting is that between Romanticism, personified by the lover, and Modernism, figured in the answering clocks.
The clocks, which “whirr and chime” like a tolling bell in response to the lover’s song, signal the lover’s naivete in his belief that any love can be eternal. “O let not Time deceive you, / You cannot conquer Time,” chime the clocks as they ring the hours that mark the lover’s inescapable march toward death. In a series of grim and often obscure images and utterances—which evoke a certain mode of Modernist poetic anxiety and difficulty and place the clocks in the position of the modern anti-Romantic poet—the clocks reject the lover’s claims, arguing that Time destroys love, just as it destroys life:
“In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.
“Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.
The valley’s summer green yields to winter’s snows (“appall” literally means “to grow pale”), as even the most vigorous artist or athlete must eventually be covered over by a funeral “pall.” The seasonal motif explicitly connects the themes of time and death, as does this poem’s most well-known stanza:
“The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
Here death is figured in the “glacier” and the “desert,” two huge natural and impersonal forces that overwhelm the landscape in a slow, inexorable, and all-engulfing progress. The domestic scene of the “cupboard” and “bed” is invaded by these devouring presences, as death comes calling even to the tidiest household. The “crack in the tea-cup” is the fault line of death, waiting at any moment to swallow us up. And if love is doomed in life, it is
“The clocks address the lover—and the reader—in a sequence of stanzas that trace a progression of awareness and appreciation of love’s fragile power in a world of death and time.”
entirely meaningless in “the land of the dead.” There, all the comforting rules governing our affections are without significance, and the eternal verities expressed in the lover’s song amount to little more than twisted nursery rhymes. In death, “the first love of the world” and “Jill go[ing] down on her back” add up to the same thing.
The clocks are not entirely cynical, however. They believe in love, though they know it cannot endure. In fact, they argue, it is precisely love’s ephemerality and unreliability that makes it precious. The clocks address the lover—and the reader—in a sequence of stanzas that trace a progression of awareness and appreciation of love’s fragile power in a world of death and time. In stanza ten, the clocks imagine the lover’s inevitably doomed search for eternal love tempting him to suicide, as he stares into the basin into which the blood from his slit wrists would seep. The image of the basin also hints at an allusion to the Greek oracles, who used bowls mounted on tripods to conjure their prophetic visions. Thus the lover’s faith in transcendant love is likened to a foolish faith in oracles, a belief in a visionary truth that exists outside of man’s earthly experience.
By stanza thirteen, the prospective lover has progressed from suicidal despair to simple “distress,” and from the basin to the mirror, where he looks not toward some mystical conception of love, but into himself. It is through love of himself that he will learn that “Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless.” That is, he will discover that his earlier conception of timeless love is false and that it is the capacity for earthly love—however fleeting—that makes life a “blessing.” The final phase of the lover’s education brings him in the penultimate stanza from the mirror to the window, where his vision of his fellow man inspires in him the awareness that self-love is not sufficient and that “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” Human love may be be faulty and “crooked,” the clocks tell us, but it is all that we have. As Auden put it in another poem written around this time, “We must love one another or die” (“September 1, 1939”).
The poem ends where it began, with the voice of the nameless observer:
It was late, late in the evening.
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming
And the deep river ran on.
The voices of the lover and the clocks have fallen silent. The debate has subsided, the crowds have disappeared. Time has conquered even the clocks themselves. All that remains is the voice of the poet, singing on late into the night, in tune with the river. It is the poet’s voice that “survives” while all else has passed away.
In its presentation of the debate between the lover and the clocks, mediated by the narrator’s commentary, the poem offers an array of different perspectives on the same subject, namely the place of love in a world where all men die. But while the clocks seem to have the upper hand in the argument, the poem doesn’t take sides. It allows the reader to inhabit opposing perspectives and engage the debate for him or herself. We see the value in the lover’s touching idealism while at the same time we acknowledge the clocks’ clear-eyed view of human frailty. We must choose for ourselves which perspective is the true one and then, when we have finished reading the poem, act accordingly in our own lives. Reading this poem is thus, in a sense, a kind of rehearsal for life, just as Auden hoped it would be. While poems may indeed “make nothing happen,” if we listen attentively to the choices the poem offers us, they can at least be “a way of happening.”
Source: Aidan Wasley, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
Ellman, Richard, ed., The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, W. W. Norton, 1988, pp. 732-34.
Johnson, Richard, “W. H. Auden,” in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 20: British Poets, 1914-1945, edited by Donald E. Stanford, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 19-49.
Frederick Buell, W. H. Auden As a Social Poet, Cornell University Press, 1973.
Provides a general critical overview of Auden’s work.
Humphrey Carpenter, Auden: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1981.
Offers some interesting insight into the personal and political events surrounding the publication of this poem.
Richard Hoggert, Auden: An Introductory Essay, Chatto & Windus, 1951.
This highly enthusiastic essay both celebrates Auden’s work and offers insight into the type of reviews his work received.