Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

An almost obsessive concentration on time—particularly its clash with the aspirations of young love—dominates the poem. It is not, however, a carpe diem (“seize the day”) poem of the type that became popular in the seventeenth century and has found many echoes in the twentieth. In the carpe diem tradition the lover’s intent is often seductive, or can be easily so interpreted. Typically he reminds his beloved that her youthful beauty will soon fade, that she cannot long expect such appreciation as he is now bestowing on her. If he has a certain measure of tact, he may even concede that he too is subject to the ravages of time, but in any event he urges consummation of their love.

“As I Walked out One Evening,” like Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose,” works quite otherwise. Here is a speaker whose evident sincerity—and naïveté—leads to exaggerated pledges which any observer but a thoroughgoing cynic might applaud. It seems fitting, after all, that true love should generate such vows. A failure to utter them would be somehow disappointing.

The love lyric of Auden’s poem, however, is framed not only by the observer, who may well approve, but by the stern and uncompromising voice associated with the city clocks. A future the lover can scarcely imagine will test him with a succession of buffets while life “leaks away.” Do the lovers under the railroad bridge sense this truth in the chiming of the town’s...

(The entire section is 500 words.)