“As I Walked Out One Evening” Study Guide
Summary of the Poem
“As I Walked Out One Evening” by W.H. Auden is a love poem—an ode, in which the modern and the natural collide violently. It depicts the combination of modern and pastoral elements, as well as the sublime.
Set in the cosmopolitan city of Birmingham, England, the poem juxtaposes two fighting but balanced voices reflecting on love and time, stressing the conflicting tension that characterises modern city life. The poem recounts what the speaker, Auden’s literary disguise, saw and heard while strolling across the city. It begins with an urban pedestrian image, followed by a duet of two voices from a lover and the city clocks.
In the opening stanza, the speaker demonstrates his ability to imagine by blending the rustic and urban in his head. The speaker sees the city masses as “fields of harvest wheat” (4). This cropped image also emphasises the bourgeoisie’s homogeneity and dehumanisation in capitalist society.
While walking down by the river, the speaker hears a lover perform a love song in which the lover tells the girl that his love for her would transcend time and place. The lyrics are mostly exaggerated expressions of hyperbole and romantic clichés. For example, his love for his beloved will last until “China and Africa meet” and “the river jumps over the mountain” (10–11). Furthermore, this poem is tinted with bourgeois domesticity and vulgarity, representing 20th-century bourgeois life and culture.
The image of the “folded” ocean that is “hung up to dry” in the fourth stanza suggests laundry as a part of domestic duty (14). In addition, “the seven stars” (15) refers to the Pleiades constellation. In Greek mythology, the Pleiades were Atlas’ seven daughters who were transformed into doves and later stars to escape Orion’s relentless pursuit.
However, in modern man’s song, the Pleiades lose their divinity connotation. The Greek nymphs, or sacred doves, have been replaced by a flock of “squawking” geese (15), which make loud and harsh noises in the skies.
The powerful, collective voice of the clocks chimes in as the lovers bask in the wonderful fantasy they have fashioned together. The speaker appears to be the only person who hears the hidden messages in the voices of the city’s clocks. The voices of the clocks reveal the cruellest yet most universal truth: “You cannot conquer Time” (24). Time appears as a charming rabbit in man’s grasp in the previous love ballad, disguised by the romantic illusion. The chiming of the clocks, on the other hand, lifts the veil that has long veiled the nature of time. Unlike a benign bunny, the personified Time is an impersonal and evil entity hiding in the shadows. Like a playful youngster, he interrupts times of intimate intimacy with unexpected “coughs”:
In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
and coughs when you would kiss. (25–28)
The clocks begin to chime in the next two stanzas, revealing the realities of Time. In contrast to the lover’s illusory and dazzling Eden, man’s life “leaks away” in a hell of headaches and concerns (30). Furthermore, in contrast to the gentleness of bunnies, Time has a destructive energy that can disrupt the natural progression. In Stanza 9, the power of Time breaks not only “the threaded dances” of snow as a natural phenomena, but also the “brilliant bow” of the diver as a bird (35–36).
The chiming of the clocks in Stanzas 11 and 12 adds to the warning that Time’s destructive influence will lead to the barrenness of love. Domestic elements such as “basin,” “cupboard,” “bed,” and “tea-cup” indicate the domestic atmosphere (39–43). Home should be a field where love can develop and thrive. However, love withers in this region of “the glacier” (41) and “the desert” (42). The house’s two opposing energies of coldness and heat result in “the crack in the tea-cup,” allowing a path to “the land of the dead” (43–44). Auden subverts the worlds of fairy tales and nursery songs to create this kingdom of the dead. Pure love and innocence are nowhere to be found within this realm. Lust and seduction rule this location, where the giant in the folktale “Jack and the Beanstalk” seeks to seduce Jack, the “Lily-white Boy” loses his purity and becomes “a Roarer,” and Jill “goes down on her back,” a a*xually provocative position (47–48).
* = e
Following the description of the Land of the Dead comes the poetic relief—albeit tinged with bitterness. The chiming of the clocks in Stanzas 13 and 14 forces the lovers and the speaker to confront reality.
Although pure love cannot be retrieved, life is still a “blessing” (51) even if one cannot bless, and there is still love even if it is “crooked” (55). At the end of the poem, the lover’s two voices and the clocks come to a halt. The river, on the other hand, continues to flow.
Analysis of the Poem
‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ is a poem about the fate of love (and even life) in the face of the passage of time. Auden intended for it to be set to music, which explains the regular rhythm, and it is written in the style of a literary ballad. The dialogue, for example, contains dramatic elements. It opens with a first-person account of an evening walk, but Auden begins predicting events later in the poem early in the first stanza. The phrase ‘The crowds on the pavement / Were harvest wheat fields’ provides a dual purpose. The first is that it implies the possibility of human mortality. Comparing the crowd to a harvest conjures up ideas of reaping, which corresponds with our conception of ‘Death’ as a character, who is frequently depicted wielding a scythe. Additionally, there is the notion that individuals are no more significant than ‘harvest wheat,’ and that their death is irrelevant, although Auden does not elaborate on the metaphor. The second function of these lines is to achieve a balance between the urban ‘pavement’ and rural ‘fields,’ and indeed, this is a poetry of balance. Pessimism and optimism. Between life and death. Auden begins the contradictions subtly, building up to the poem’s second half’s torrent of paradoxes and the poem’s ultimate unresolvable clash between love and Time.
The second stanza introduces the ‘lover,’ a stranger to the narrator who serves as a conduit for the poem’s positivity. Perhaps it is noteworthy that the narrator is unable to convey this positivity. The emphatic opening line of the song ‘Love has no end’ may be something the reader wishes to believe, but it becomes more difficult to believe as the song progresses and the lover’s claims become more outrageous: ‘I will love you / Till the China and Africa meet, / Till the river jumps over the mountain, / Till the salmon sing in the street,’ ’till the ocean is folded and hung up to dry, / Till the seven stars go. The hyperbole casts doubt on the permanent nature of love, and in light of what follows, the lover may appear naive. The heightened vocabulary here is offset by the subsequent brutal realism, which is echoed in Auden’s fantasy ‘world of the dead.’ With the conclusion of the lovers’ song, the poem’s optimistic section concludes, and the poem’s initial assertion about overcoming Time is challenged by ‘all the clocks in the city’ chiming out the message ‘You cannot conquer Time’. This is the polar opposite of the lover’s optimism, and what follows is a list of instances in which Time triumphs.
Auden begins by describing the ‘burrows of the Nightmare / Where Justice nude is’ — this image is particularly unpleasant because we prefer to envision Justice personified as a controlled and upright woman, but picturing her naked nearly implies violation and certainly vulnerability.
Meanwhile, Time menacingly ‘watches from the shade / And coughs when you would kiss’. These lines serve as a reminder of mortality – as well as the inescapability of waste and illness. As with ‘If I Could Tell You,’ Time is portrayed as an omniscient observer. Time continues its grim march as ‘vague life slips away’ and ‘threaded dances’ and ‘bright bow[s]’ are broken. Each phrase is dripping with pessimism, and Auden’s phrasing masterfully conveys the agony of ageing. We then reach an intriguing verse in which the chiming of the clocks becomes an instruction: ‘plunge your hands in water, / Plunge them up to the wrist’. This has been a source of contention, but it may be an allusion to suicide. It is unsurprising, given the poem’s tone thus far and the fact that suicide is the only sure method to avoid the gradual and excruciating degeneration depicted (Auden himself regarded suicide as a ‘right of choice’ for anybody who, confident of defeat, ‘wished to end their game with life’). If suicide is actually being discussed, then ‘wondering what you have missed’ is likely a person in their dying moments contemplating what life might have been like had they chosen to continue. Alternatively, this stanza could be describing a commonplace moment in which a person washes their hands and is suddenly overtaken with a sense of insignificance, ‘wonder[ing]’ about the numerous things they will not have time for in their brief life. The following verse juxtaposes massive nature landscapes with basic home images — for example, ‘The glacier knocks on the cupboard’. This odd notion is merely a foreshadowing of what is to come. The bizarre and distressing words ‘The crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead’ are itself a lane that leads the reader into the ‘land of the dead’ depicted in the next three stanzas.
Auden’s underworld is full of disconcerting and unsettling paradoxes; ‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes’ and children’s stores are warped so that ‘the Giant is captivating to Jack’ (indicating sexual attractiveness) and ‘Jill goes down on her back’ (again, suggesting promiscuity) occur. Within these gloomy and distressing sights is another reminder that ‘Life continues to be a blessing’ that we have no power to ‘bless’ ourselves with. In other words, life and death are beyond our control, and regardless of how ‘distress[ing]’ we find this, the ‘world of the dead’ is our final destiny. Once more, the chiming advises us, ‘You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart’. This is a paradox, as we would believe that a ‘crooked neighbour’ cannot be loved, while a ‘crooked heart’ cannot contain love. Perhaps Auden is implying that only a ‘crooked heart’ can love a ‘crooked neighbour,’ revealing a lack of faith in humanity. The frustration and perplexity generated by this concept may be the source of the tears that’scald and begin’ and are anticipated by the chimes. Finally, the final stanza returns to the narrator’s voice rather than the clocks’ chiming. We are informed that it is now ‘late, late evening’ and that ‘the lovers… had left’. This implies that much time has passed since the poem began, and we can easily image the narrator standing on the riverside, immersed in these ideas about life and death long after ‘the clocks had halted their chiming,’ much like this poem does for the reader. The final phrase is particularly sad, as the narrator comments, ‘Despite a lack of chiming clocks, the deep river ran on.’ Time persists regardless of whether we count it. The river imagery is frequently used to symbolise the passage of time, both because it is unavoidable and because it is described as ‘deep’. Auden reminds us once more that it is ultimately unintelligible. The reader must determine whether it is more frightening to contemplate the same difficulties as the narrator or to comprehend that the clocks’ sinister response is the narrator’s perception of an otherwise benign sound. In either event, this poem is an intriguing analysis of a fundamental human dread, constructed masterfully for maximum emotional impact.