‘A Walk After Dark’ is a beautiful and complicated poem in which W.H. Auden uses a series of metaphors and other forms of figurative language in order to describe a walk at night. He spends the majority of the time in this piece thinking about the past, present, and future, and how one might learn from that which has already come to pass. His speaker asserts various opinions about the young and rich while also taking comfort in the presence of the stars. This is one of Auden’s more complex poems, leading various readers to make different interpretations about what each image means. This is a result of the times and of a literary device known as an allusion, which often leads readers down different paths.
Explore A Walk After Dark
In the first stanzas of this piece, the speaker describes a calm, evening walk under a clear sky. This peaceful moment is filled with contemplation as he goes over recent events, described only vaguely through metaphors, and how the future might turn out as humanity ignores its warning signs. He thinks about time, his age, and the stars while also considering the fate of the United States and his friends.
You can read the full poem here.
In ‘A Walk After Dark,’ Auden engages with themes of time, loss, and the future. Without directly stating so, his speaker spends the poem thinking about the Second World War (and likely the First) as well as matters of time, age, and what comes next for him and those he cares for. One of the primary images in ‘A Walk After Dark’ comes from Auden’s depiction of the stars/night sky as a home for memory, or at least that’s how his speaker chooses to see it. This is a way of comforting himself that all that’s past is not lost. The stars are, as he is, middle-aged.
Structure and Form
‘A Walk After Dark’ by W.H. Auden is an eight-stanza poem that is separated into sets of six lines, known as sestets. These sestets follow a loose rhyme scheme of ABCABC. A number of these rhymes are less than perfect. For example, “this” and “is” in stanza one are half-rhymes, as are “seventeen” and “machine” in stanza four. There are also some examples where the endings don’t rhyme at all. For example, “like” and “rich” in stanza five and “bed” and “States” in stanza eight. Visually, the lines are all similar in length, but they do not follow a specific metrical pattern.
Auden makes use of several literary devices in ‘A Walk After Dark.’ These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, allusion, and imagery. The central allusion at work in this piece is to the Second World War. This piece was written in reaction to that period in history, although it does not state that fact explicitly. Readers have to look to the lines and consider what else they might be referring to. It’s at the end of the poem when the speaker talks about “judgements” his “friends” and the “United States” that it’s the clearest.
Imagery is another quite important poetic device, one that the best poets very much use to their advantage. It occurs when the poet crafts partially vibrant and interesting descriptions of places, people, and experiences. For example, these lines from stanza eight: “But the stars burn on overhead, / Unconscious of final ends.” Or, these lines from the first stanza: “A cloudless night like this / Can set the spirit soaring.” Readers are asked to engage their senses in these moments and try to visualize, as well as smell, hear, and feel the scene as it plays out.
Alliteration is a type of repetition, one that occurs when the poet uses and reuses the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple words. For example, “spirit soaring” in line two of the second stanza and “present” and “past” in lines one and two of the sixth stanza. Enjambment is a formal device, one that’s concerned with the moments that the poet cuts off a line before the natural conclusion of a sentence or phrase. For example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza two as well as lines four and five of stanza four.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
A cloudless night like this
Can set the spirit soaring:
In the first stanza of ‘A Walk After Dark,’ the speaker begins with a description of the “walk” the title references. He describes how nights, such as the one he experiences, make the spirit “soar.” It’s a relief after a “tiring day.” Knowing that this piece was written after the Second World War gives these lines extra meaning. The “dark” could be considered a metaphor for the war itself. Or alternatively, the “day” that’s recently passed. Either way, the speaker is able to find some relief, as is everyone else around the world.
When he looks around him as sees people still going about their business, the “clockwork spectacle,” he is at once impressed and bored by it. It’s very “eighteenth-century,” he adds. This suggests that there’s something old-fashioned about what’s going on around him. Things are bound by the customs of that time.
It soothed adolescence a lot
To meet so shameless a stare;
The things I did could not
After the shocked were dead
In the second stanza of ‘A Walk After Dark,’ the speaker goes on to allude to the idea of meeting a “stare” or standing up to a force. This act is one that “soothed adolescence,” he adds. By standing up and staring back, one feels as though they’ve succeeded in resisting. In the third line of the poem, the speaker brings back in the first person pronoun “I.” By talking about himself. The speaker reminds the reader that this is all personal. He, too, has a stake in what’s going on. While it’s tempting to assume the “I” is Auden, that is not necessarily the case. More than not, poets create a persona or speaker that they utilize in one or more poems.
The speaker in the next lines alludes to the “things [he] did.” In the face of what he knows now, he doesn’t believe that his actions, whatever they may be, were so bad. “That” is still there, and the shock has passed away. Although these lines are vague and certainly up for various interpretations, it’s likely that Auden is again alluding to structure, the “eighteenth-century way” from the first stanza. Whatever his speaker did, some tried to push back against it.
Now, unready to die
Bur already at the stage
The creatures of middle-age.
He continues to speak about himself in the third stanza. Here, he says that he’s “unready to die,” an unusual phrasing. But, he takes comfort in what’s around him. He looks up at the sky and feels far more connected to the history there in the stars than what’s going on around him. The speaker has grown to “resent the youth” and what they represent. The stars, on the other hand, are “creatures of middle-age.” This is a lovely image, one that evokes a feeling of closeness, but also estrangement, with the rest of the world.
It’s cosier thinking of night
As more an Old People’s Home
Or myself at seventeen.
When he thinks of night, he likes to think about it as “an Old People’s Home.” This makes him feel “cosier” than other interpretations. In a line that seems to relate to the image of the “clockwork spectacle” in stanza one, the speaker adds that a less cosy interpretation is to consider it a “shed for a faultless machine.” This is a confusing image, but one that makes more sense when lines four through six are added to it. The “Old People’s Home” is a way of depicting the history that lives in the stars. There, he likes to imagine his younger self resides, as does “Imperial Rome” and the “pre-Cambrian” era. In this same way, he might be able to look at the stars and see the time before either World Wars and the lives of friends and relatives that were lost.
Yet however much we may like
The stoic manner in which
The classical authors wrote,
The lacrimae rerum note.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker says that the past is the past, and those times cannot return again. It’s impossible, no matter how much one may like it, for the writings of “classical authors” to be present. Only the “young and rich” shed tears for human sorrows, or “strike / The lacrimae rerum note.” This is an interesting line and another that can be interpreted in multiple ways. One might read it and see Auden as describing the young and rich as expressing sorrow over the way the world has turned out. Or, one might read it as Auden suggesting that by striking the “note,” they’ve helped to cause the tragedies that have befallen the world. What’s clearer is that in this speaker’s mind, the “young and rich” are those that have the most promise and power in the world. He sees himself as middle age, not part of either group (but still able to take comfort in the stars).
For the present stalks abroad
Like the past and its wronged again
What needn’t have happened did.
The poet brings in the “present” in these lines. What can’t be ignored, he says, are the truths of the world. They cannot “be hid” in the past as they are still “present.” He depicts “pain” in these lines as a choice someone made. That pain didn’t have to occur, but “Somebody” allowed it to. That “Somebody” is an unnamed authority or the broad swath of humanity that chose to allow itself to fall into war.
Occurring this very night
By no established rule,
Our post-diluvian world:
The image of “night” returns to the poem in the seventh stanza in addition to one describing the world as “post-diluvian.” This is a reference to anytime on earth after the biblical “flood.” He considers the world as it is now and the possibility that something is happening at this moment that’s going to upset the “laws we accept” to structure “Our post-diluvian world.” This little “No” is likely meant to represent the next spark of conflict or sorrow that’s headed for everyone.
But the stars burn on overhead,
Unconscious of final ends,
And these United States.
In the final six lines of ‘A Walk After Dark,’ the speaker returns to the stars and the image of his walk. He describes the stars as burning “overhead / Unconscious of final ends.” In their celestial world, death is not as it is on earth. They have immense lives that make human existence a brief blip on their radar. There is something comforting and disconcerting in this image of the stars burning on, ignorant of the brevity of human lives. The speaker asks home while thinking about what “judgement waits” for all those he knows, himself, and “these United States.” This very direct final line is shocking at the end of a very metaphorical poem. It drives home the poem that Auden was considering real-life events when he wrote it.
Readers who enjoyed ‘A Walk After Dark’ should also consider reading ‘Funeral Blues,’ also known as ‘Stop All the Clocks,’ ‘The Unknown Citizen,’ and ‘The Shield of Achilles.’ The latter is one of Auden’s best poems. In it, he describes Achilles’ shield, as it features in Homer’s Odyssey. In ‘The Unknown Citizen’ he depicts a nameless man through a dystopian report. He emphasizes faceless governmental agencies and workers as he does so. In ‘Funeral Blues,’ which is likely Auden’s most famous poem, the poet discusses grief and the different ways that it influences people.