Auden’s ‘Lady Weeping at the Crossroads’ is a beautifully complex narrative into which a reader is drawn. The speaker, acting as a guide, takes the reader through a woman’s mental space as she discovers who she truly is. The mood is contemplative, investigative, and sometimes frightening. Auden’s tone is authoritative, directive, and calm as, through his speaker, he tells the woman where she needs to go and how she’s going to discover herself there. The poem speaks on themes of self-discovery, Freudian Psychology, truth, and falsehoods.
Within the text of the poem, the speaker directs a woman from a crossroads at which she’s stuck to the edges of the earth. Along the way, she has to dive into the ocean, retrieve a golden key, cross a dangerous bridge and eventually leave behind all doubt and uncertainty. The poem concludes with the speaker telling the woman to stand in front of the mirror and plunge a “penknife” into her own “false heart”. This violent act represents a purging of all falsehoods and surrender to the truth of one’s own being.
‘Lady Weeping at the Crossroads’ by W.H. Auden is a nine stanza poem that’s separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. Auden also chose to structure the lines in accordance with a metrical pattern. The first and third lines contain eight syllables or four sets of two beats. The first of these beats, usually, is stressed and the second stressed. This is known as trochaic tetrameter. In regards to the second and fourth lines of ‘Lady Weeping at the Crossroads’, they are shorter. The majority contain five beats with the emphasis varying.
There are also examples of half-rhyme in the poem. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, half-rhyme is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse. For example, “weeping” and “meet” in stanza one and “sun” and “dumb” in stanza two.
Auden makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Lady Weeping at the Crossroads’. These include alliteration, enjambment, and allusion. The first, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “Doubt” and “danger” in stanza eight and the “s” sound in “Searching through the stranded shipwrecks” in stanza five.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In this case, Auden makes several complex allusions to fairy tales and the theories of Sigmund Freud (in reference to dreams and the inner-self).
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence.
Lady, weeping at the crossroads,
Would you meet your love
In the twilight with his greyhounds,
And the hawk on his glove?
In the first stanza of ‘Lady Weeping at the Crossroads,’ the speaker begins by addressing a “Lady”. This person is not immediately present in the speaker’s vicinity, a fact that’s confirmed later in the text through the introduction of fanatical elements. Therefore, a reader can label this as an example of an apostrophe. An apostrophe is an arrangement of words addressing someone who does not exist, or is not present, in the poem’s immediate setting. But, the person is addressed as though they can hear and understand the speaker’s words.
He tells the reader that this woman is “at the crossroads”. This is deeply metaphorical. It refers to a turning point in one’s life in which there are a number of different directions on has to choose from. She is “weeping,” as if in desperation or confusion. Her symbolic crossroads is only in her mind, it is a state of being. The speaker asks her if she “Would…meet [her] love / In the twilight”.
He would be with his “greyhounds” and the “hawk on his glove”. Here, things start to get complicated. These lines suggest that the man is wealthy, with the ability to buy animals and engage in pursuits reserved for the upper-classes. Without additional information it’s not entirely clear why these details were added, but, nevertheless, they do add to the overall musical mood of the poem.
Bribe the birds then on the branches,
That the night may come.
In the next two lines, Auden makes use of anaphora or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines. “Bribe” begins lines one and two of this stanza. The speaker urges the woman to “Bribe the birds then on the branches…to be dumb”. This is a mysterious request that alludes to silencing the animals. If they are “dumb” they can’t hear or see.
Then, even more, interestingly, the speaker asks her to “Star the hot sun out of heaven / That the night may come”. This is obviously a metaphorical request, something that’s impossible to complete physically. At the same time, with its addition and the strange lines about silencing birds, a reader might feel as though they are in another world that operates with different rules. Whatever the case may be, the speaker is obviously interested in night falling.
Starless are the nights of travel,
And regret behind.
Next, the speaker refers to traveling. He tells her that when one is traveling at night it is “Starless”. This is an unfortunate thing and plays into the previous reference to being lost at the crossroads. Without the stars, one can’t navigate. The environment is also growing more difficult to be in. The winds are cold and the woman is urged to “Run with terror all before you / And regret behind”. She has headed away from her regret and terror ahead. Is this brave or foolish? She is confronting something she’s afraid of, a feature that may or may not allude to Auden’s appreciation for the theories of Sigmund Freud and a quest to understand one’s own inner-self.
Run until you hear the ocean’s
You must drink it dry,
Despite the “Deep” and “bitter” cries the woman is going to encounter while she runs, meaning, the pain and anguish, she needs to “drink it dry”. She must approach discomfort and unhappiness and accept them as part of life. The word “Deep” is in reference to line one of this stanza in which the speaker brings in the image of the “ocean” and the sounds it makes. It is personified, meaning, the poet has given it human characteristics. In this case, it is said to cry, as if in anguish. It goes on and on everlastingly.
Wear out patience in the lowest
For the golden key,
The ocean imagery continues into the next lines. These lines feel as though they are coming from another world, one that is more fantasy than reality. Here, the woman is asked to “Wear out patience,” aka, push and test herself, “in the lowest Dungeons of the sea”. This is a place she couldn’t escape from and therefore an ideal location for her to change herself, or at least discover something about herself. This is furthered through the next lines which speak to searching and finding “stranded shipwrecks”. There is a reference to a “golden key,” her current objective. This key is associated with the ship and treasure, but it also speaks to something inside the women that needs to be unlocked.
Push on to the world’s end, pay the
Over the abyss.
This path the woman is on is a dangerous one. She is not completely safe in her search to understand herself. Once she has the key she needs to keep going, this is not the end. Her destination is beyond “the world’s end,” somewhere its impossible to reach. When she arrives there in the metaphor-rich world she needs to “pay the / Dread guard with a kiss” and then brave a bridge. Here, she is delving deep into her own subconscious, taking risks and pushing further in order to understand herself. The “abyss” represents the possibility that while seeking out her truth she’s going to plunge into despair or madness.
There stands the deserted castle
Open the locked door.
At the end of the world, over the bridge, is a “deserted castle,” a symbol for the deepest recesses of her mind. It is there she needs to embark on some serious exploration. The darker imagery of the previous lines has dissipated. Now, everything is empty and silent. The staircase is expensive, made of marble, and set out waiting for her. This feels like a triumph as if she’s finally arrived at her destination.
Cross the silent ballroom,
See yourself at last.
Once inside the castle she is asked to go across the “silent ballroom,” in which there is no one to influence her aside from herself. The passing through of this space represents a pushing away of “Doubt,” like one might receive directly from others or interpret when one is around other people, as well as “danger”. There is no one and nothing that can stop her now.
Finally, she’s in front of the mirror. This is the climax of the poem and the moment she has fought through the dark parts of her mind for. It is temporarily obscured by “cobwebs” and the speaker asks her to push them away. The third line of this stanza is skillfully enjambed, forcing a reader down to the fourth line and the phrase “See yourself at last”. A reader might breathe a sigh of relief here that the woman’s journey, and their own, is done at last. But, Auden has one last surprise in store.
Put your hand behind the wainscot,
Into your false heart.
The speaker has arrived where she’s meant to be, but she isn’t done yet. She needs to, the speaker says, “Put [her] hand behind the wainscot”. This is a panel of wood around the bottom portion of the wall. The speaker tells her, as if consolingly, she has “done [her] part”. Now, all she has left to do is find the “penknife” that’s been stashed there and “plunge it / Into [her] false heart”.
This ending might initially seem like a huge twist. Rather than finding herself, the woman found death? But that’s not entirely true. She might’ve killed herself, but it was the part of herself that wasn’t true. Therefore, the narrative did, in fact, lead her exactly where she needed to be. The woman was able to leave her crossroads behind and enter into her own mental world where she tossed aside falsehoods and ideally, although the poem does not state it, emerged a new person devoid of doubt.