As I walked out one evening

by W. H. Auden

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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 image of eternity is the “glacier,” whose presence is always near, as near, in fact, as the kitchen cabinets, where it “knocks on the cupboard” door. Real life is grim, the clocks say, and love is, as often as not, merely sex. Love is not a fairy tale. In actual day-to-day existence, the fairy-tale hero, Jack, is actually attracted to the cruel giant, and Jill is nothing more than a prostitute. Take a look in the mirror, the clocks advise the lover, and understand life’s sadness.

Strangely, they say, “life remains a blessing,” nonetheless, even though human beings eventually find it difficult to bless their existence. True redemption comes from loving one’s disreputable neighbor, despite the neighbor’s flaws, because both the lover and the neighbor are equally “crooked,” equally wounded by time.

The last stanza is left to the poet to speak. By now it is very late, and the lovers have departed. Even the clocks have ceased their “chiming,” and he perhaps feels as though time itself has finally stopped. Yet even so, the river continues to run beside him, reminding him of the impersonal passage of the hours.

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