Look, Stranger

W.H. Auden

‘Look, Stranger’ by W. H. Auden captures the beauty of a moment observed by the speaker and reveals the very human desire to commit it to memory.


W.H. Auden

Nationality: English

W.H. Auden was a celebrated and prolific British-American poet who also wrote essays, reviews, and plays.

Auden predominantly found inspiration in religion, politics, morality, and man's interactions with nature.

Key Poem Information

Unlock more with Poetry+

Central Message: The urge to capture all the sensory and emotional aspects of a moment

Themes: Beauty, Desire, Nature

Speaker: An unknown person atop a seacliff

Emotions Evoked: Excitement, Passion, Satisfaction

Poetic Form: Free Verse

Time Period: 20th Century

W. H. Auden's poem conveys the poetic feat and desire of capturing for posterity the very essence of a moment. His use of imagery and figurative language demonstrate the very magic of language and the mysterious ways it can move us to feeling.

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. Auden

Look, 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.


‘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.

Literary Devices

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)

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

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).

Stanza Two

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).

Stanza Three

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.


What is the theme of ‘Look, Stranger?

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.

What is the mood of the poem?

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.

How do the unique line breaks contribute to the poem?

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.

What does “shingle scrambles” refer to in the poem?

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.

Similar Poems

If you enjoyed this poem, here are a few more that contain similar themes and settings:

Poetry+ Review Corner

Look, Stranger

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

W.H. Auden

This poem by W. H. Auden underscores the modernist poet's ability to create a vividly arresting scene, while also highlighting his idiosyncratic style when it comes to structure and line breaks. It is a beautiful poem that is devoted to communicating the simple but irreconcilable desire to capture the very essence of a moment for future reflection.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

20th Century

Auden was an important English modernist poet in the 20th century. His poems often contained a variety of political, cultural, and social themes/commentaries. Yet, this poem doesn't contain any trace of these. This poem instead displays the poet's artful and meditative style, as well as his ability to stir something earnest within the reader with a meticulous devotion to imagery.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Auden was a crucial English modernist poet. Although at the time, his poetry was regarded either with awe or mockery. Today, his poems have enjoyed a resurgence in popularity because of their timeless themes and expressions. This poem might not be among his most celebrated, but it is still a beautiful expression of the poet's desire to share with such visceral clarity.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Beauty is a major theme within the poem as it is implied that this is one of the reasons that the speaker wants to hold onto this memory in the first place. There is something about the view, and the experience moves something within them. The affectionate way that Auden illustrates the entire scene is akin to the brush strokes of a painter.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Desire is another crucial theme, though it is not the romantic or amorous kind. Instead, the speaker voices a much more quaint desire to just commit this scene to memory (as well as recording it in verse) so they might enjoy it later. This is similar to the modern sentiment of snapping a photograph to remember the way a certain person or place once looked like.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The imagery of nature dominates the poem and is the primary focus of Auden's poem. The speaker is clearly inspired by the sight of the cliffs, ocean, and animals that live in this place. This explains their earnest need to share the moment with the reader so that they, too, might enjoy the splendor and beauty of the natural world that they've just stumbled upon.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


Excitement is, without a doubt, the dominant emotion found within the poem. The speaker is energized from the very first line with this infectious energy, which they try to impart to the reader. Anyone who has stumbled on a truly stunning vista would no doubt understand the desire to share such a rush of excitement that comes with it.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The speaker's passion is another emotion expressed within the poem. It jumps from their descriptions, the imagery and diction that mold them into something living and kinetic. The entire goal of the poem is to harness that passion and use it to capture the very essence of the scene unfolding before them. This makes a breathless and powerful experience for the reader.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


There is a sense of the speaker's satisfaction as the poem finishes, a certain contentment that comes from their attempt to capture the scene in front of them. Part of this is owed to their ability to put down into words their emotional description of the moment they just experienced. But of course, it is also because of the sensory experiences themselves.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


There are a variety of things that the speaker clearly appreciates throughout the poem. First and foremost, there is the view that they are describing for our and their benefit. They clearly appreciate this view for its beauty and the wonder it inspires in them. But there is also an appreciation for being able to share this sight with the titular stranger, which of course, refers to the reader.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The poem begins by describing that the speaker is on an island. This is a small detail that just serves to orient the speaker and is also a reference perhaps to Auden's home country of England. But it also contributes to the speaker's compelling desire to share the view with anyone, be they a stranger or not.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The reason the speaker is describing this scene is revealed at the end of the poem: they want to be able to remember this view and be moved by it again. With the advent of the photograph, this might seem like a modern compulsion. But long before we could capture life by pushing a button, people were doing it through other art forms. Auden's poem highlights this need beautifully.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+


The sea also features prominently in Auden's poem. Many a verse has been penned while staring wistfully out at such vast blue waters. This poem is no different in inspiring those same feelings of grandiosity and awe, the speaker doing so with the lucid intention of sharing it both with strangers and their future selves.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+

Free Verse

Auden's free verse can range greatly across his own poetry. In this poem, his line breaks go from traditional end-stopped lines to erratic enjambment. All of these are designed to build the constantly moving and shifting scene that is unfolding in front of them. Being unrestrained by any formula allows the poet to construct the scene as it unfolds in their own mind.
To unlock content, or join Poetry+
Steven Ward Poetry Expert
Steven Ward is a passionate writer, having studied for a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and being a poetry editor for the 'West Wind' publication. He brings this experience to his poetry analysis on Poem Analysis.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Got a question? Ask an expert.x

We're glad you like visiting Poem Analysis...

We've got everything you need to master poetry

But, are you ready to take your learning

to the next level?

Share to...