As I walked out one evening by W. H. Auden

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Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Most readers of “As I Walked out One Evening” will quickly notice something familiar about the rhythm of this poem: Auden has chosen to tell this apparently simple story in a simple, traditional poetic form, the ballad. The poem’s rhythm and the rhyme strongly echo folk songs, and, in fact, the work’s first line is a standard opening phrase in scores of variations on this old English and American love ballad. Yet right from the start, the poet suggests that this poem will not be as conventional as one may think: As he takes his evening walk among the London crowds, the people seem like a field of wheat—a comparison not likely to be found in the ordinary folk song. In the poem’s second stanza, though, the image is once again typical: The poet overhears a lover singing under a railway arch and reproduces the song for us.

In stanza 3, the first stanza of the repeated song, the lover makes the age-old lover’s commitment: He (or perhaps she) will remain faithful for eternity, until the impossible comes to pass—“till China and Africa meet,” until “the ocean/ Is folded and hung up to dry.” Some of the images are whimsical and original; salmon “sing in the street” and the “seven stars go squawking/ like geese about the sky.” These curious figures suggest that this lover is not like the usual ballad singer; he seems to have a quirky imagination. In any case, he is unafraid of time because he holds “the first love of the world” in his arms throughout the ages. The lover’s song ends, and the poet hears the “whirring” of London’s clocks, replying to the lover’s grandiose claims about time. “You cannot conquer Time,” the clocks warn the lover. The clocks describe a sinister Time, one that lurks in shadows and nightmares and carries cruel justice.

In stanza 8, the clocks portray life as it is actually lived; life, they say, is “leaked away” in worry and “headaches.” Time’s chief purpose, they stress, is to banish life’s springtime pleasures, to disrupt the dance of love. It is better, they counsel, to “plunge your hands” in cold water and wake up to reality. The clocks, who know how time works better than the lover, say that the real...

(The entire section is 582 words.)