The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 453

“As I Walked out One Evening” contains fifteen four-line stanzas rhyming abcb. The rhymes are masculine; the meter is a flexible iambic trimeter with all the unrhymed lines ending with an additional unstressed syllable. The language of this poem, which has no title but is usually designated by its first line, is relatively simple, but the poem presents three voices, one of which conveys a relatively short but beautiful love lyric, embedded in a more elaborate structure that complicates the reader’s response.

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The first voice, not that of a lover but of an observer who is walking on an urban street toward a river, occupies the first stanza and three lines of the second. The walker is in a mood to characterize the passing crowds of people as “fields of harvest wheat.” Nearing the “brimming river,” this person hears a voice brimming with the rapture of love.

The lovers are embracing under a railroad bridge. One of them, the poem’s second voice, is first heard in the last line of the second stanza, “Love has no ending,” an assertion that may serve as a title of the song that follows and certainly expressive of its theme. In the next three stanzas the lover pledges undying love in a series of extravagant assertions reminiscent of Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose” (1796), in which the speaker vows to love his lady “till a’ the seas gang dry.” In this poem the couple’s love will continue “till the ocean/ Is folded and hung up to dry.”

Whereas with Burns the love lyric is the whole poem, however, here there is not only the human observer but also, beginning in the sixth stanza, “all the clocks in the city.” The third voice, which proceeds from the mention of the clocks, occupies thirty-four of the poem’s sixty lines and ominously contradicts the lover’s vow in a series of stark images which have the effect of darkly telescoping the lovers’ real, finite time—a time that “leaks away” to its inevitable end. Auden encloses these lines within single quotation marks. The images pile up: snow, glaciers, deserts, tears, and agonized looks in mirrors, as well as perverse variations of nursery rhymes in which, for instance, Jill does not simply tumble down a hill after Jack but, in a context that suggests sexual violence, “goes down on her back.” This voice does not deny love, but insists, in the poem’s penultimate stanza, that human love is not only finite but “crooked.”

The observer’s voice returns in the last stanza. The hour is now late, the lovers are no longer there, the clocks are no longer chiming, and the river continues to flow.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

“As I Walked out One Evening” reflects Auden’s interest in the ballad, a form which he often practiced in the late 1930’s, when this poem was composed. The stanza is a slight variation of the ballad stanza of alternate tetrameter and trimeter lines, while the rhyme scheme is typical of the ballad. Several characteristics of the venerable English and Scottish folk ballad tradition are found here: plain diction, carefully calculated repetitions of words and phrases, a tendency toward dialogue, abrupt transitions, and a pervasive sense of irony.

Only four words in the poem have more than two syllables, and a number of lines are entirely monosyllabic. The repetitions include the lover’s “I’ll love you”; the third voice’s iteration of imperative verbs such as “plunge,” “look,” and “stand”; and the adjectival repetition at the beginning of the last stanza: “It was late, late in the evening.” The simplicity of the language heightens the emotional complexity of the poem. The lover’s vows are packed with images of vitality, but the stark imagery that follows suggests a world whose corruption threatens to infect lovers no matter how sincere their intentions.

The irony exists on two levels. It is ironic that the lovers can hardly imagine the difficulties involved in maintaining their devotion through the ordinary vicissitudes of life. This poem, however, envelops not only the characters but also its audience in the irony. The faithless, nightmarish world depicted beginning in the sixth stanza has the effect of defying the common hopes and aspirations not only of young lovers but of all who believe in the effectuality of human love.

The voices of the poem do not engage in dialogue in the ordinary sense. Only one of the lovers is heard; the reader can only wonder about the reaction of the other. However, the third voice of the poem, representing time, is in effect “talking back” to the lover, although it seems unlikely that the latter is listening. The voice of time dismisses the lover’s promises bluntly but ambiguously: “Life remains a blessing/ Although you cannot bless.” Love exists in the world, but the young lover, busy with his own affirmations, has no inkling of its obstacles and contrarieties.

The first transition is the abrupt interposition of the voice of time in the sixth stanza, which is not the voice of author or observer-narrator, neither of whom offers any overt comment on its ominous message. The transition from that message to “late, late in the evening” in the last stanza renders interpretation problematic. The lovers have gone away, whether together or individually the reader does not know. The fact that the clocks are no longer chiming but that the “deep river” flows on might be read as a repudiation of a society given to technological measurement of time and a reaffirmation of the natural order of which young love is a universal component—but the river is its own symbol of the passing time that bids to challenge the lover’s vows.

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