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 clocks? Auden’s poem does not answer such a question, but surely if the two do not hear the message now, they will soon enough.
This voice which occupies the major portion of the poem strikes a tone that suggests not only time, however, but a particularly harsh and forbidding time. “As I Walked out One Evening” deviates from the usual ballad in its tendency toward interpretative comment in this third voice, not so much the voice of time as the voice of the times. Auden composed the poem in 1937, when forces were gathering for a world war, the second of the poet’s lifetime. While no explicit references to the era mark this poem, its insistence on the “crookedness” of humans in the face of cataclysmic disorders and vague horrors represents a challenge to the lovers beyond the ordinary power of time considered as an agent of the natural order.
Nature, however, reasserts itself in the consciousness of the observer in the last stanza. Although the clocks will strike again, they are quiet at least for now. The lovers are gone but will presumably meet again and confirm their love in these most difficult of times. The final image of the river, which flows on as time does in the most tumultuous epochs, may signify time according to nature. If so, the last line of the poem affirms an order in which human love has a chance to prevail—an order that persists through the most disorderly of times.