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 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 forms, from traditional ballads like this one to groundbreaking epics. His interests were broad—from politics to spirituality, history to societal influences, and always the concern for 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, see 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.
Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of "As I Walked Out One Evening"
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.
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.
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 and belittling a mountain in an attempt to define or measure their love.
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!!
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"
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.
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 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.
Life for those who are denied love can be a headache, a worry, and 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.
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.
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
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 teacup, that most innocent and English of items, is cracked, and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 and 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.
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.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
Why Write Poetry? Jeannine Johnson, Rosemont, 2007
© 2020 Andrew Spacey