Analysis of the Poem "As I Walked Out One Evening" by W.H.Auden

Updated on March 13, 2020
chef-de-jour profile image

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

W.H.Auden
W.H.Auden | Source

W.H.Auden And A Summary of As I Walked Out One Evening

As I Walked Out One Evening is a rhyming ballad, originally titled Song when it was first published in the New Statesman and Nation magazine in January 1938. It was later also published in Auden's book Another Time in 1940, with its new and now familiar longer title.

This poem has been set to music by various composers over time, the short rhythmic lines making ideal lyrics. Parts of the ballad were inspired by traditional folksong and nursery rhyme, as will be shown later.

Auden's technical talents allowed him to produce a vast range of poetic form, from traditional ballads like this one to groundbreaking epic. His interests were broad - from politics to spirituality, history to societal influences, and always the concern on the individual's role in the bigger scheme of things.

As I Walked Out One Evening focuses on the idea that love, represented by a pair of lovers the speaker overhears, is subject to time, expressed through the chimes of the city clocks.

  • The main theme is mortality. Humans, with all their intimate relationships, with their idealistic and foolish notions of love, cannot avoid or evade the consequences of time, no matter what they say or feel. Time cannot be deceived.

Metaphor (fields of harvest wheat), simile (like rabbits) and personification (The desert sighs...) are to be found, as well as allegory - where images and phrases and scenes take on hidden meaning.

What is fascinating about this poem is the way Auden has used different voices to explore this subject.

The opening stanza and three quarters of the following for example sees the first person speaker begin a walk down to the river.

At the end of the second stanza another voice, that of the lover, becomes the second first person speaker.

In the sixth stanza yet another voice enters the scene, that of the city clocks, telling the lovers that they cannot conquer Time.

At the end the original speaker returns, time having passed, the river, the eternal river, flowing on.

Auden wrote the poem in 1937, published it in 1938 and again in 1940. It reflects the anxiety he had about his own relationships in life and was one of a number of poems that were created around the time of the second world war and all the uncertainty surrounding the future of the west.

As I Walked Out One Evening

Stanza by Stanza Analysis of As I Walked Out One Evening

First Stanza

The first person speaker sets off on a walk, the classic opening line of a folk poem beginning As I....confirms that this is a traditional lyric with strong rhythm and purpose. That place-name Bristol Street is an actual street in Birmingham, UK, where Auden was raised as a boy.

The crowds on the pavement (sidewalk) are metaphorically seen as fields of harvest wheat, a mass of humanity ready for storing. This is not only a highly visual metaphor - the swaying dense number of people moving like a wheat field in the wind - but suggests the seasonal cycle in play.

This first stanza, a quatrain, metrically has alternating lines of tetrameter/trimeter, that is, the first line has four feet, the second three and so on.

Let's take a closer look at this:

As I / walked out / one eve / ning,

Walking / down Bris / tol Street,

The crowds / upon / the pave / ment

Were fields / of har / vest wheat.

So the first line is a weak iambic tetrameter, the second line an iambic trimeter (note the trochee foot at the beginning), the third line repeats the first metrically speaking and the fourth line is a pure iambic trimeter.

This pattern is the base for the whole poem BUT there are quite a few variations in several stanzas so watch out for longer lines and different rhythms (beats) as the stresses alter.

Second Stanza

We follow the speaker down to a river - brimming, that is, full, in spate - where someone is singing. It's a lover beneath a railway arch.

This is the scene. Crowds of people on a street, a river flowing, the railway arch taking the line into and out of the city, and someone singing about everlasting love.

A railway signifies travel, a life journey, short or long. The river could be a symbol of what? Emotion? Time? The arch is engineering and design, built to support.

And the lover is being idealistic, as lovers tend to be. This is the change in speaker, from the walker, the observer, to the lover.

Third Stanza

The next three stanzas are all love song. The lover boasts that his (or her) love will go on indefinitely, until tectonic plates that carry China and Africa shift towards each other....quite impossible you might say, but not for someone in love who is stuck in a grimy city and has found a true soulmate.

Basically the lover is using absurdist lyrics, turning the natural world upside down, making a nonsense of salmon, belittling a mountain in an attempt to define or measure their love.

Fourth Stanza

The surrealism continues. An ocean is folded like a cloth and hung up to dry. Again, impossible in the real world but oh so easy when you're in love. Even the constellations are in on the act - the seven sisters (Pleiades) - transformed into geese which noisily squawk through the sky.

Love, love, love, all you need is love and the imagination is allowed to run riot, over the earth and into the cosmos, there's no limit!!

Fifth Stanza

Perhaps the most bizarre from a visual point of view. Years are moving fast, like rabbits (note the simile) not hares (which would muck up the metre) and the singing lover has the Flower of the Ages in hand.

What this means is that time is of no consequence to pure love, which is what this is. Time is so many rabbits running this way and that...let them run...the perfect bloom, the first love of the world.

This latter line could almost be religious but what we have here is a person experiencing real love for the first time and its effects are well, fantastical, incredible, unreal.

Analysis of As I Walked Out One Evening Stanza by Stanza

Sixth Stanza

The lover's song is over, interrupted by the voice of the city clocks, introduced by presumably the original speaker.

This is the start of the reply or reaction from the clocks, from time itself, given a capital letter in the poem, Time, to signify the high status collective voice.

The message is clear from the onset: Humans shouldn't be deceived, Love cannot conquer Time. This address is aimed directly at the lovers so is personal.

Seventh Stanza

Note the reference to the world of the rabbit again in burrows (the holes in the ground rabbits dig out for their homes) which occur in the Nightmare....is this the Nightmare of Time, of reality? Of a world without love?

The second line in this stanza refers to the injustices of the real world in which we have to love, to choose to love, or be denied the love. In Auden's time he as a gay man could not legally come out, or be seen in public kissing for example.

This stanza highlights the real world of love...here Time might be thought of as the state, laying down the law, thwarting those who wish to express themselves lovingly in public.

Eighth Stanza

Life for those who are denied love can be a headache, a worry, symptoms that can sap the soul. In these circumstances Time is all powerful and doesn't care about the needs of those who are suffering.

Ninth Stanza

Vivid imagery brings the reader into the green valley where snow drifts; winter approaches, life is suspended, as is love. The dances could be those of nature, or traditional freedoms enjoyed by the active, the youthful, who are able to dance and to dive.

Tenth Stanza

This stanza suggests a ritual involving cleansing and self-reflection, water being the element of emotion and purification. Is this some sort of baptism?

Staring into clear water, held in a basin, means to stare at one's own image, the face, on the surface, or to look through and down to the plunged hands. Hands are possibly the most sensitive appendage we humans have. They are capable of the most compassionate and loving acts...is this what is meant? Is Time telling the lover that the hands have missed so much?

Analysis of As I Walked Out One Evening Stanza by Stanza

Eleventh Stanza

The imagery is revived and made more surreal. A glacier, a desert...symbols of slow time and great expanse, difficult things to cross and to live with. The domestic setting adds to the idea of unease within the home, or of familiar everyday things becoming victims of time.

Even a tea-cup, that most innocent and English of items, is cracked, isn't worth using anymore.

Note the use of the anapaestic foot (dadaDUM) in the last two lines which gives a well known rhythm and rising voice:

And the crack / in the tea- / cup opens

A lane / to the land / of the dead.

Twelfth Stanza

This is a world of opposites...a world gone slightly mad....beggars have too much cash (banknotes), Jack the beanstalk climber is no longer afraid of the Giant, the Lily-white innocent Boy from the old British folk song O Green Grow The Rushes O is now a drunken partygoer and Jill, from Jack and Jill, is sexualised.

Thirteenth Stanza

The lover is encouraged to look in a mirror, to face up to personal responsibility and realise that life is something to be cherished, to be grateful for, despite being on the outside looking in.

Fourteenth Stanza

Love is the answer, even if those we share space with are crooked, that is, not quite mainstream, not quite average, imperfect. Perhaps here we have Auden himself acknowledging that love has to triumph in the end no matter what kind of love is being expressed. We're all human, we're fallible.

Fifteenth Stanza

The original speaker returns, the lovers leave, Time has had its say and the river runs on. This changed scene suggests that Time and Love have a complex relationship, that each day, each hour has its demands.

But the eternal river is always there, flowing through human lives, seemingly indifferent to emotions and relationships. Yet strangely inspiring because we don't know where its origin is but we know it is destined for the sea.

Meaning of Words And Phrases in As I Walked Out One Evening

Bristol Street

Bristol Street in the city of Birmingham, UK, known as an industrial, multicultural powerbase. Auden was brought up in Solihull, near Birmingham.

the seven stars

The constellation Pleiades, a cluster well known in the night sky, called the seven sisters commonly. In mythology they were the daughters of Atlas and were pursued by Orion the Hunter, turning first into doves then stars.

Giant is enchanting to Jack

Taken from the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk.

the Lily-white Boy

Taken from the religious folksong O Green Grow the Rushes O....where the verse:

Two, two the lily-white boys/Clothed all in green Ho Ho

is one of twelve. The lily-white boys are symbols of innocence and purity.

Roarer

A person who loves to party loud and drunkenly.

And Jill goes down on her back

Reference to the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water/Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.

Here Jill is positioned dubiously in a sexual act.

love your crooked neighbour...

Inspired by the early English nursery rhyme There was a crooked man.

Sources

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

Why Write Poetry? Jeannine Johnson, Rosemont, 2007

www.jstor.org


© 2020 Andrew Spacey

Comments

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment
    • Brenda Arledge profile image

      BRENDA ARLEDGE 

      3 weeks ago from Washington Court House

      I had not heard of this poem.

      You have done a wonderful job reviewing the details. Interesting that there are 3 different voices in one poem.

      Nice article.

    • OGUNDARE OLUSEGUN profile image

      OLUSEGUN 

      3 weeks ago from NIGERIA

      This is wondrous. Years do not matter when a work is superB, it will always be evergreen. Thanks for analysis and sharing.

    working

    This website uses cookies

    As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, owlcation.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

    For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://maven.io/company/pages/privacy

    Show Details
    Necessary
    HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
    LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
    Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
    AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
    HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
    Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
    CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
    Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
    Features
    Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
    Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
    Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
    PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
    MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
    Marketing
    Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
    Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
    Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
    Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
    Statistics
    Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
    ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
    Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)
    ClickscoThis is a data management platform studying reader behavior (Privacy Policy)