The 20th-century poem ‘Leap Before You Look’ is written by the best-known modern British poet, Wystan Hugh Auden. In this poem, the speaker advises his partner to take risks in life. He inverts the famous proverb, “Look before you leap,” in order to counsel his friend for action rather than caution. Besides, Auden makes several implicit remarks on conventions, society, and culture. In totality, this didactic poem teaches how caution is not always a good thing, and taking worthwhile risks is more important in life.
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‘Leap Before You Look’ by W. H. Auden is all about taking risks in life and having an action-oriented mind.
In this poem, Auden talks about how sometimes people should embrace uncertainty in life. His speaker refers to the very presence of danger in each step of life. It is crucial for his friend if he wants to do great things in his life. The way things are supposed to be done might not change, but the fear of doing something uniquely should be eliminated.
People who constantly worry about the outcomes and take everything too seriously might not be able to live to the fullest. They fail to recognize the chances and restrain themselves due to their cautiousness.
Furthermore, Auden comments upon society “consenting” to live as mere sheep. People tend to follow the flock or the way others lead their lives. They never take a route of their own. The speaker counsels against this mindset throughout the poem.
You can read the full poem here.
The sense of danger must not disappear:
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.
In the first stanza of ‘Leap Before You Look,’ Auden’s persona says that the sense of danger and uncertainty is a good thing. Cautiousness enables us with the ability to see the possible future objectively. According to the narrator, though the way seems gradual or plain, the way to success is short and steep, just like the slender mountain roads. Despite all this, the poet urges his partner to take the leap without being too concerned about the dangers ahead. He advises him to take action instead of sitting idle and chalking out the outcomes at every step.
Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
That has a tendency to disappear.
In the second verse, the speaker comments that sometimes, tough-headed men can get “mushy” in their heads while sleeping. Here, “sleep” is a metaphor for lethargy and inattentiveness. When they do not pay attention, they can commit blunders. The speaker humorously says that they even break the simple by-laws that any foolish person can abide by. However, the poet says, the risk or uncertainty associated with doing the right things will never fade away. Thus, the fear within his friend’s mind should be wiped clean.
The worried efforts of the busy heap,
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.
The poet refers to the people who want security and comfort as a “busy heap.” They remain busy throughout their lives without contributing much to the greater goal. For the speaker, they are as useless as a “heap” of dirt. They constantly work and worry about their next move. In contrast to that, the speaker says how “dirt” (useless tactics), the “imprecision” (their imprecise actions), and the beer (intoxicated approaches) work for some people. They even taste success depending on them. However, they never take risks and lead calculated life. According to the speaker, this might be a silly thought. Hence, they should laugh at it and take their own “leap.”
The clothes that are considered right to wear
And never mention those who disappear.
In the fourth stanza, Auden expresses how society has set criteria for which clothes are “right” to wear depending on a particular time frame. They are the ones that bring the most commercial benefits to their capitalists. These lines show that the speaker is cynical about the trends or fashion prevalent in society. In the next lines, the speaker says that this trend will keep on continuing as long as people live as mere “sheep.” Sheep follow the path they are led to and never question the shepherd. They never pay attention to the other animals of the flock. That’s why when one animal disappears, the rest of the flock never becomes aware of it.
Much can be said for social savior-faire,
No one is watching, but you have to leap.
In the first line of this section, “Savior-faire” is the ability of a person to act or speak appropriately according to social conventions. Auden’s speaker says that he can say a lot about that as well as about social etiquette. However, the truth is it is harder to feel happy when no one else is there. It is even harder to cry alone. In this way, the speaker shows his sense of insecurity to choose a different path.
In the next line, he says that no matter if others are watching his partner or not, he has to leap. The pain of feeling unplugged from the mainstream would be there. When he really understands the satisfaction of being ahead of the pack, he would never regret the choice he makes today.
A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Our dream of safety has to disappear.
In the last stanza of ‘Leap Before You Look,’ Auden’s speaker talks about how secure and safe he feels with his partner. They have already chosen a different path. It makes the speaker feel lonely. He describes the depth of his solitude as “ten thousand fathoms deep.” This solitude exists in the bed they sleep and dream of. No matter how much he loves his partner, he has to take a leap. Their dream of safety has to disappear so that they can experience greater and better things. It would enable them to think and act on their own.
Auden’s ‘Leap Before You Look’ serves as a reminder that taking a “leap,” a metaphorical reference to action, is vital in life. The speaker mentions how risks are a part of achieving great things. He comments on society and talks about how sometimes inept people are the ones that achieve success. Moreover, he talks about moral codes, social etiquettes, and rules of conduct that are required to be followed blindly. Instead of asking the readers and his partner to do that, Auden urges them to “take a leap,” not the shortest but the longest one. Overall, this poem is a wonderfully worded piece of life advice for the poet’s partner as well as the readers.
Auden writes the poem ‘Leap Before You Look’ using the quatrain form. The text consists of six quatrains (stanzas having four lines each) with an alternative rhyme scheme. In the first stanza, the rhyming pattern is ABAB, and in the second stanza, it is BBAA. The third stanza has a BAAB scheme, the fourth stanza has an ABBA pattern, the fifth stanza has an AABB scheme, and the last stanza has the BABA rhyme scheme. Alongside that, the poem is written in iambic pentameter. It means each line contains five iambs (unstressed-stressed). There are a few metrical variations in the text. Let’s have a look at the scansion of the first stanza.
The sense/ of dan/-ger must/ not dis/-ap-pear:
The way/ is cer/-tain-ly/ both short/ and steep,
How-e/-ver gra/-du-al/ it looks/ from here;
Look if/ you like,/ but you/ will have/ to leap.
The literary devices used in Auden’s ‘Leap Before You Look’ are as follows:
- Anaphora: This device is used in the very first lines of the poem, “The sense of danger must not disappear:/ The way is certainly both short and steep” and again in the first two lines of the third stanza, “The worried efforts of the busy heap,/ The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer.”
- Alliteration: It occurs in “The way is certainly both short and steep” (alliteration of the “s” sound), “Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep” (recurrence of the “m” sound), etc.
- Apostrophe: In the line, “Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear,” the speaker addresses his friend or loved one as “my dear.”
- Simile: The poet compares humans to sheep, who follow the herd and do not pick their own path; in this line, “So long as we consent to live like sheep.”
- Enjambment: This device is used in the lines, “But to rejoice when no one else is there/ Is even harder than it is to weep.” It also occurs in some other instances in the text.
- Hyperbole: Auden uses hyperbole in the line, “A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep.” Here, the depth of solitude is compared to the depth of an ocean, “ten thousand fathoms.”
W. H. Auden was a British-American poet whose poems are known to cover the topics of love, life, politics, morality, religion, etc. He began writing poems in 1922 at the age of fifteen. His first poems were published in 1923 in the school magazines. The poem ‘Leap Before You Look’ was written in 1940 and published in the collection, The Double Man in 1941. In the same year, he wrote a long philosophical poem entitled ‘New Year Letter.’ Some of W. H. Auden’s most renowned poems include ‘The Shield of Achilles,’ ‘Funeral Blues,’ ‘September 1, 1939,’ ‘For the Time Being,’ ‘The Unknown Citizen,’ etc.
Wystan Hugh Auden’s poem ‘Leap Before You Look’ is a piece of advice from a speaker to his partner. Through this poem, the speaker counsels his friend to take risks in life, to be bold while making decisions, and to be confident. Success is all about losing one’s security and safety, being a bit less cautious than the “flock.”
The central theme of the poem is caution versus action. In this poem, Auden talks about how taking risks in life is worthier than being too cautious at each step. It could lead to greater and bigger things, and thus, one should not be afraid of the conventions of society and take a “leap.”
The message of the poem is all about being bold and taking risks in life. We should trust ourselves with the decisions we make. The poet also points out how we should let go of the social conventions that hold us back from what makes us happy.
This piece is written in the form of advice to a friend or loved one. It consists of six quatrains with an alternating ABAB rhyme scheme. Besides, the poem is composed of iambic pentameter with a few variations.
The tone of the poem is affectionate, wise, didactic, and ironic. In this poem, a speaker advises his friend to be action-oriented rather than being too cautious.
Readers who enjoyed the piece of advice in W. H. Auden’s ‘Leap Before You Look’ can also consider reading the following poems. You can also read other W. H. Auden poems.
- ‘Advice to a Girl’ by Thomas Campion — This poem is dedicated to women and warns them to be cautious before starting relationships with men.
- ‘Expect Nothing’ by Alice Walker — This poem is about living life without any expectations.
- ‘If—’ by Rudyard Kipling — This inspirational poem provides advice on how one should live one’s life to be a better human being.
- ‘Risk’ by Anaïs Nin — In this poem, Nin uses a metaphor related to a garden to express a story of change after turmoil.
You can also explore these inspirational poems about life.