In many ways, the poem ‘Look, Stranger’ by W. H. Auden resembles a photograph. A snapshot of a moment, a landscape, and a vague but powerful feeling that the speaker expresses a desire to feel in recollection. In this sense, over the course of three stanzas, the poet expresses a rather essential human inclination toward both nostalgia and the subsequent need to capture what is fleeting.
The speaker of Auden’s poem accomplishes this by guiding the reader through their vision of an awe-inspiring coastline. Urging them to keep silent and absorb all the sensory experiences the scene has to offer.
Look, Stranger W. H. AudenLook, stranger, on this island nowThe leaping light for your delight discovers,Stand stable hereAnd silent be,That through the channels of the earMay wander like a riverThe swaying sound of the sea.Here at a small field's ending pauseWhere the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledgesOppose the pluckAnd knock of the tide,And the shingle scrambles after the suck--ing surf, and a gull lodgesA moment on its sheer side.Far off like floating seeds the shipsDiverge on urgent voluntary errands,And this full viewIndeed may enterAnd move in memory as now these clouds do,That pass the harbour mirrorAnd all the summer through the water saunter.
Explore Look, Stranger
‘Look, Stranger’ by W. H. Auden is a poem about reveling in a breathtaking view.
‘Look, Stranger’ is a brief poem that is focused on a singular goal: illustrating a scene that is as powerful in retrospect as it was in the moment. The speaker appears to be addressing the reader directly, issuing instructions on where to look and what to observe throughout the poem. Each subsequent stanza builds on this sensory construction of their view. First, they draw attention to the sound of the sea below them before shifting focus to the massive cliffs they stand atop.
In the final stanza, the speaker’s attention fixes on some ships in the distance and the movement of the clouds high above the water. The attention to detail honing in on the grandiose immensity of all the natural elements that surround them: sky, ocean, and land mass. The final lines express this solemn belief that the view is so overwhelming that even in memory, it will have the ability to move the speaker toward some ambiguous but potent feeling.
Structure and Form
‘Look, Stranger’ is composed of three stanzas of varying lengths. There is no concrete meter or rhyme scheme, but Auden still uses end rhymes at key points in the poem to add a lyrical quality to the speaker’s words. His use of free verse underscores the importance of the earnest and passionate voice that is cultivated in its erratic line breaks. The poem’s verse either plods forward breathlessly in its descriptions — only to continue via enjambment in the next line — or halt abruptly because of end-stopped lines.
As expected, the poem ‘Look, Stranger’ relies on a varied array of literary devices to create Auden’s vision of a coastline. Three types of imagery are used in the poem. Visual: “Here at a small field’s ending pause / Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges” (8-9); auditory: “The swaying sound of the sea” (7); and kinesthetic: “the pluck / And knock of the tide” (10-11), “And the shingle scrambles after the suck- / -ing surf” (12-13).
Auden also uses figurative language to bring that imagery to life. He employs personification: “The leaping light” (2); as well as metaphor: “And move in memory as now these clouds do” (20) and simile: “That through the channels of the ear / May wander like a river” (5-6); “Far off like floating seeds the ships” (16)
Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
The first stanza of ‘Look, Stranger’ opens with the speaker beckoning the listener to experience a truly stunning scene. But in these first lines, the speaker doesn’t offer any details of what we’re looking at just yet. All the reader knows of their physical location is that it’s on an island. The speaker personifies the sunlight as “leaping” (2) over their view, revealing it for our “delight” (2).
They then give a command — “Stand stable here / And silent be” (3-4) — the purpose of which is to urge the listener to become attuned and focused on this particular moment. A beautiful piece of imagery and figurative language follows as an instruction to listen: “That through the channels of the ear / May wander like a river / The swaying sound of the sea” (5-6).
Auden echoes the soothing ebb of that auditory imagery with their use of alliteration throughout the stanza: “leaping light” (2); “delight discovers” (2); “Stand stable” (3); swaying sound” (7).
Here at a small field’s ending pause
Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide,
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
-ing surf, and a gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.
The second stanza of ‘Look, Stranger’ offers more details on the scenery being described by the speaker. Here the focus is on the large cliffs that make up the coastline, emphasizing the way the fields above end suddenly to give way to a sheer edge. “Where the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges” (9), they narrate. The scene is rendered immense and majestic by these descriptions. And the wonder the speaker expressed in the first stanza starts to come to life in the reader.
Auden’s diction further emboldens the fortitude of the cliffs that “Oppose the pluck / And knock of the tide” (10-11). While far below, the smaller rocks on the beach are dragged into the “suck- / -ing surf” (12-13). One final image completes the sense of enormity that is evoked by the cliffs as the speaker describes the way a seagull finds itself lodged for a “moment on its sheer side” (15).
Far off like floating seeds the ships
Diverge on urgent voluntary errands,
And this full view
Indeed may enter
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.
The final stanza of ‘Look, Stranger’ completes the image that began in stanza one and also reveals the purpose of the poem itself. Shifting focus away from the colossal cliffs of the beachfront, the speaker turns their attention to the distance. They see ships “like floating seeds” (16) that they perceive as moving purposefully on “urgent voluntary errands” (17). The last few lines see the speaker reflecting on “this full view” (18) that they’ve illustrated for us.
Here the speaker affirms that thinking so vividly of this scene has the ability to “move in memory” (20). This partially explains why they are relating it in the first place, seeking to capture and express the feelings that are elicited by such a sight. The diction (“voluntary”) and imagery (the clouds moving across the water) throughout this last stanza imply that perhaps it is a sense of liberty and freedom that is longed for by the speaker.
Although it is somewhat ambiguous, it is clear that the view that’s described is incredibly moving to the reader. Perhaps it is the beauty of the landscape, the way the cliffs and sea humble the individual by reminding them of their minuteness, or even the inviting freedom of such vastness. Either way, it is a view the speaker will not forget.
The poem’s theme can be inferred from the speaker’s desire to capture the scene in front of them. It is a common human desire to retain the memory of a particular moment or location. Auden’s poem recognizes that need, embodying a poetic attempt to both retain and share the entire essence of their experience.
The poem’s mood is one of awe, as everything the speaker points out to the reader in the poem is treated with a certain reverence in its description, from the cliffs and sea to the animals and people dwarfed by them. The speaker’s tone is that of an individual caught in the swell of a moment, and this helps develop a wondrous mood.
The poem’s line breaks, at times, appear to mimic some of the imagery found in the poem. In the second stanza, the second line trails on quite lengthily before stopping at the word “ledges” as if to illustrate the sheer drop of the cliffs. Then there is the curious line break of “suck- / -ing surf” that occurs in the same stanza, which calls to mind the image of the receding tides that are ebbing and flowing far below.
One definition of the word “shingles” is as follows: small, smooth pebbles, as found on a beach. In the poem, the speaker observes these minute rocks as they appear to scurry along after the receding tide, adding to the kinesthetic imagery that fills this whole scene.
If you enjoyed this poem, here are a few more that contain similar themes and settings:
- ‘Beeny Cliff’ by Thomas Hardy – this poem similarly sets the stage for an emotional recollection atop an English seacliff.
- ‘The Sea’ by Pablo Neruda – this poem serves as the speaker’s ode to the beauty of the ocean.
- ‘The Widening Sky’ by Edward Hirsch – this poem also finds a reason to revel over a seaside landscape.