Throughout ‘As I Walked Out One Evening,’ Auden uses speaking city clocks to discuss the nature of mortality and time. Life is filled with disappointments, the clocks say, but one has to go on despite this and recognize it as a gift. It’s important to love and accept the corrupt and sinful natures of those around you and realize that love is not perfect or liberating.
Explore As I Walked Out One Evening
‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ by W. H. Auden is a complex poem about life, death, and disillusionment.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker informs readers that they are recalling a memory. He thinks about going on a walk through the city in the evening and seeing the crowds around him. Near a river, under a railway arch, the speaker hears young lovers singing. The lovers are suggesting that “love lasts forever.” They sing about how they are going to love until impossible things happen.
Still thinking back on this memory, the speaker hears the cities clocks singing and responding to the lovers. They tell the young, enamored people that “nobody wins against Time.” No matter the strength of one’s love, Time is always going to win out.
The beauty of love does not last, the clock says. Everyday worries eventually degrade it and death comes for everyone. The clock, which had at first been speaking only to these young lovers, seems to direct its words to all readers of this poem. The clock tells everyone to consider everything they’ve missed out on. In the afterlife, everything is meaningless and corrupt. It is a dark place, where things are different from how one imagined.
The clocks also tell the listener to look in the mirror and see one’s own unhappiness. Life, the clocks say, is a gift even when it seems like a curse. The poem concludes with the speaker noting that the clocks stop singing and that it’s now late in the evening. The lovers have left and everything is the same as it was before.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure and Form
‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ by W. H. Auden is a fifteen-stanza poem. These fifteen stanzas are four lines each, known as quatrains. The poem takes the form of a ballad. This means that it uses a specific metrical pattern and rhyme scheme. It is also song-like in its descriptions and images.
Throughout this piece, Auden chose to use iambic trimeter, which, in some instances, is used more loosely than others. In some examples of lines, there are three stressed beats, but not necessarily in the pattern of trochees or iambs.
There are numerous examples of iambic trimeter though. For example, line three reads:
The crowds upon the pavement.
The stressed syllables are in bold. The reader should notice that the first six syllables of this line are in perfect iambic trimeter. But, the final syllable is unstressed, leaving readers with one final syllable that doesn’t fit the pattern.
Throughout this poem, the poet makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point. For example, the transition between lines one, two, and three of the second stanza and lines one and two of the third stanza.
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses particularly interesting examples and descriptions. Imagery should trigger the readers senses, inspiring them to imagine the scene in great detail. For example, “I’ll love you till the ocean / Is folded and hung up to dry / And the seven stars go squawking.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of multiple lines. For example, “walked” and “Walking” in lines one and two of the first stanza and “salmon sing” and “street” in line four of the second stanza.
Stanzas One and Two
As I walked out one evening,
‘Love has no ending.
In the first lines of this poem, the poet uses the phrase that later came to be the title of the piece. While describing how they walked out one evening, the poet hears lovers singing under the arch of the railway. They are near a river that is described as “brimming.” This is a wonderful example of imagery that sets the scene for the rest of the piece.
The reader should also take note of the use of a metaphor at the end of stanza one. Here, the speaker notes how the people they saw on their way to the river were “fields of harvest wheat.” They suggest that they are ready for “reaping,” or harvesting. This is the first reference to death in a poem that is filled with them.
Stanzas Three and Four
‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Like geese about the sky.
The third and fourth stanzas are filled with the lovers’ words. They say that their love will last until impossible things happen. For example, the “river jumps over the mountain” and “China and Africa meet.” They believe that their love has an enduring quality that can never be corrupted.
There are more examples in the fourth stanza, which should also be noted for its lyrical quality. There’s a wonderful example of alliteration in the third line of the stanza as well, “seven stars go squawking.”
Stanzas Five and Six
‘The years shall run like rabbits,
You cannot conquer Time.
The fifth stanza is the last of the lovers’ song. They know they “hold / The Flower of the Ages” in their arms. They are suggesting that the strength of their love, and the connection that they have, is someway going to beat Time.
In the sixth stanza, the “clocks in the city” chime in. They tell the lovers that they should “let not Time deceive you, / You cannot conquer Time.” The clocks, as timekeepers, understand the nature of Time better than these lovers do.
Stanzas Seven and Eight
‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
To-morrow or to-day.
Time watches the lovers and “coughs when you would kiss.” This suggests that beneath every kiss and connection, death waits. Time will do as a chooses, “To-morrow or to-day.” Time is always there, ready to jump in when death is ready.
Stanzas Nine and Ten
‘Into many a green valley
And wonder what you’ve missed.
As the poem progresses, the clock reveals that, although it may not feel like it now, the beauty of this new love is not going to last. Time is capable of breaking the most beautiful things apart. As the eighth stanza noted, everyday worries, “headaches,” will change one’s relationship with their lover.
When spring comes to the “green valley,” it seems beautiful and forever. But, eventually, the “appalling snow” drifts in and breaks apart one’s fantasy. Winter/death always returns.
The clocks turn to address the listener or anyone who fancies themselves above Time and death. The clocks tell them to plunge their hands into the water and wash. They should stare into the water and wonder what they’ve “missed.” The sing-song-like nature of these lines is haunting. It may remind readers of a nursery rhyme, but one that has deeper connotations.
Stanzas Eleven and Twelve
‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
And Jill goes down on her back.
After mentioning the corrupting nature of everyday things in the eighth stanza, the clocks go on to tell the listeners to consider the things around them. No matter if one is looking at a bed or cupboard, everything should remind them of a “lane to the land of the dead.”
This “land of the dead,” or the afterlife/underworld, is further illustrated in the following stanza. The speaker, still the clock, says that in this world everything is different. Beautiful fairytales are dark and corrupted. They allude to the story of “Jack and the Beanstalk and “Jack and Jill.” “Jill,” the clocks say, “goes down on her back.” This is an allusion to the now sexually corrupted children’s story. These suggestions are meant to make the reader consider their view on the “perfect” things in their own lives. They, like the lovers’ relationship, cannot last.
Stanzas Thirteen and Fourteen
‘O look, look in the mirror,
With your crooked heart.’
The clocks, maintaining the ballad qualities of this piece, tell the listeners to look in the mirror and see their own distress. They need to accept the dark parts of their own life while also remembering that “life remains a blessing.” There may be some times that one does not feel that way, but it remains true.
The most memorable line of the poem falls in the fourteenth stanza. The clocks tell the listeners to “love your crooked neighbor / With your crooked heart.” One should acknowledge their own darkness and corruption and accept it. This will allow them to love others, see their faults, and not judge them for them. Nothing and no one, not even the lovers’ relationship, is perfect.
It was late, late in the evening,
And the deep river ran on.
The fifteenth stanza provides a conclusion to the events of the poem. The speaker, no longer relaying the words of the clock or the song of the lovers, notes how it was late in the evening when the discussion of death concluded. The lovers were gone and the “clocks had ceased.” The poem’s final line reads, “And the deep river ran on.”
This leaves the reader with an understanding of how the world will continue, no matter who is in it or what emotions they’re feeling. This deep expression of life and death has concluded, and the river is still running. It will continue to run after the lovers’ relationship has ended, and everyone reading this poem or hearing the song has passed away.
The theme of this poem is the inescapable nature of Time. This comes up against the power of love, romantic love, and love for one’s fellow human. Death is inevitable, as is corruption and darkness. But, the poem concludes, one should love themselves and their neighbor, and continue to see life as a blessing.
The purpose is to remind readers of the blessed nature of their life and how they should appreciate it while they’re able. It is not beneficial to see anything, relationships included, as perfect and incorruptible. Everything has a fault and everyone will eventually die.
The initial speaker of the poem, the person who begins and ends at, is unknown. They are a persona that the poet created to narrate the poem. Partway through, readers are exposed to the words of lovers and then, primarily, to the personified voice of chiming clocks.
The meaning is that despite the darkness of the world and the inevitability of death, it is important to see life as a blessing and love one’s fellow human. Love may not be incorruptible, but that does not mean it is not worth pursuing.
Readers who enjoyed ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ should also consider reading some other W.H. Auden poems. For example:
- ‘1st September, 1939’ – a poem that was inspired by the start of the Second World War.
- ‘A Walk After Dark’ – 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.
- ‘Funeral Blues’ – is a morose, sad elegy that wonderfully describes the feelings associated with grieving.