Auden’s poem begins with the first sights the tourist in the capital is likely to see, the fashionable center where it seems as though the rich have nothing better to do than lounge in cafes and wait “expensively for miracles.” The artificiality of the capital is emphasized further in the second stanza. It has abolished the seasons and banished the natural rhythm of life.
The reality of the city, its day to day existence, is in disposable lives and the constant harshness of life which, in one of the poem’s most arresting images, batters people into conformity as the sea batters pebbles into smooth shapes. In the end, however, it is the illusion, not the harsh reality, which illuminates the sky, drawing in the “farmer’s children” with the promise of a more exciting, brilliant life.
The poem is unrhymed and written in loose alexandrines, slightly longer and less regular than the iambic pentameter usually employed for blank verse in English. The language is emotive ("malicious," "outraged," "punitive," "appalling," "wicked," etc.) and makes clear the poet’s moral objection to the thinly disguised iniquity of the city, where even in the expensive quarters the lovers eat each other and the exiles are divided into malicious cliques.