Have you ever been reading Looking for Alaska and gotten to that Auden quote and thought to yourself, "Gee, I really wish someone out in Nerdfighteria would write an in depth analysis of that poem"? You have?! Then have I got just the thing for you!
For my final in my lit analysis this past semester I had to write a five page analysis of a poem of my choosing. I went for "As I Walked Out One Evening" by W.H. Auden because I figured if it's good enough for John Green, it's good enough for me! So here's that analysis!
W.H. Auden’s, As I Walked Out One Evening speaks to nature of time as it relates to the human condition. The poem consists of three separate speakers: the lovers, the clocks and the narrator. Each speaker represents a different measure and attitude towards time. The lover’s song paints time to be conquerable and ignorable – no more than a passing annoyance that they are outside of. The soliloquy of the clocks demonstrates time as a product of society, there to keep its subjects in line, and ultimately a ruling force. Finally, the narrator speaks of love as being outside of both of these things. Time is a constant flow than brings change and opportunity, and any claim to deny or control it is an illusion.
The song of the lover demonstrates romantic idealism. The lover insists that their love exists outside of time, or rather in defiance of it:
I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street. (9-12)
This song declares the somewhat common and highly romanticized notion that “love conquers all.” It is a force unaffected by and stronger than the traditional rules of the world like time or physical laws. Just as the lover’s song reaches the peak of its impossible claims, “all the clocks in the city/ Began to whir and chime” (21-22). They refute the lover’s heartfelt declarations, treating love as a false consciousness that cheats you out of life and allows you to be distracted from the passage of time until you “stare into the basin / and wonder what you’ve missed” (39-40). In fact, they seem to suggest that love, as described by the lovers by the river, does not exist. The purity and levity of it is a façade, and that the brokenness of the human condition allows you to only “love your crooked neighbor / with your crooked heart” (55-56). From this perspective, love is an imperfect attempt to defy time that is destined to fail.
Beyond believing their love is immune to time, the lover goes on to imply that it is special, more pure or significant than anyone has ever experienced before. “The Flower of the Ages, / And the first love of the world” (19 – 20). They believe their bond to be so unique that no one could hope to understand or emulate it. The clocks immediately deny this claim as well:
Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow. (33-36)
This stanza implies the impartiality of time. It does not favor the brave, talented or unique. Time will break you of your skills; they do not help you escape time, but are in fact subject to time’s “fancy.” Both dancing and diving are activities that are generally attributed to those in the prime of their life. Referencing these along the description of the crowds as “harvest wheat,” denotes that time affects those of all ages, from the very young, to those in the “harvest” of their life. In this way, no one can ever really be a hero or any more special than anyone else, because we are all destined to end the same way.
The clocks seem to speak for time, but in fact they represent the human marking of time. Time exists as a continuum, but clocks take the concept of time and force a structure on it. In this way, the clocks speak for time far less than they speak for society’s rules and conventions.The formatting of the poem reinforces this notion. The rhyme scheme is an abcb defe pattern that demonstrates the dichotomy between the constant flow of time and the structure forced upon it by society. The unrhymed lines are constantly changing, flowing throughout the piece. The rhymed lines represent the forced structure – the conventions embodied in the clocks. This image of the clocks within the layout of the poem is further enhanced in that the stanzas are consistent throughout the piece, giving it a segmented feel, like minutes counting down. Similarly, the lyrical rhythm of the lines swings back and forth like a pendulum. The structure is flowing and consistent but is unobtrusive, almost to the point of being ignorable. We can read the poem without noticing the formatting, much like we go about our lives ignoring time because society has made it controllable through structure.
The poem also makes use of unconventional capitalization. In the speech of the clocks, “Time” and “Justice” are treated as names, personifying the concepts as in the line “And Time will have his fancy” (31). This personification reinforces the idea of the keeping of time as a human convention, placing the two concepts on the level of people. They are humanized, and so, flawed products of culture. Rather than passing idly by, “Time watches from the shadow / And coughs when you would kiss” (27-28). It is portrayed more as a monster hiding in the closet, springing out to remind you of your inability to defeat it. Time, in this representation, is a cruel master, even a Grim Reaper. This is in defiance of the lover’s declarations of hope and eternal love. “[Time] coughs when you would kiss” (28) says cultural and convention are more powerful than love. You may love truly and deeply, but you are still subject to Time. Furthermore, that it interrupts a kiss – a fairly mundane display of love and affection – demonstrates that it is commonplace occurrence that Time conquers love.
This contention between love and convention could possibly stem from Auden’s personal struggles with courtship, marriage, and sexuality. Auden married Erika Mann in 1935, though it was ostensibly more of a contract of mutual benefit than a romantic union. Auden himself is said to be homosexual. His marriage to Erika Mann would grant her British citizenship, and therefore allow her to escape the persecution she would face in Nazi Germany, and would allow him to fulfill social expectations. It is said that their marriage was never consummated ("Auden, W.H."). Auden moved to the United States in 1939, where he would live out the rest of his life, gaining U.S. citizenship in 1946. There he met a fellow poet, Chester Kallman. Kallman became his companion, and, for all intents and purposes, their relationship was more of a marriage than his relationship with Erika Mann ever would be (“Historic Figures: WH Auden”).
It would not be unreasonable to infer that Auden struggled with aligning the public persona, where he was married to Mann and a close friend and confidant with Kallman, with the reality which was the opposite. Such a stilted love life that, given the time frame, would be demoralized by the society at large would easily instill a sense of fragility in ways of romantic relations. The meaningless contract of convenience is legally and socially legitimized, where the long term, emotional commitment is rejected. This would easily explain the transcendental romanticism and its debasement by societal conventions evident in this poem.
Despite this conflict, Auden seems to be tentatively optimistic, as illustrated through the voice of the narrator. This third speaker’s lines are characterized by images of nature which Auden ultimately uses to illustrate the true passage of time. In the first stanza, he says “The crowds upon the pavement / Were fields of harvest wheat” (3-4). Harvest, in this case, is key. The harvest indicates the end of the growing season, and so a life with an end in sight. The crowds represent humanity as a whole, and so encompass both the conventionality symbolized in the clocks, and the romantic idealism of the lover’s song. They are in fruition now, like the harvest wheat, but their time will end. Similarly, in “Into many a green valley / Drifts the appalling snow” (33-34) the snow indicates the ending of a season. Snow is often linked with the notion of purity, or wiping something clean. In this way, all creations, experiences and conventions will eventually be erased, overtaken by a new season.
This theme is continued with the image of the “brimming river” that frames the poem. In the second stanza, it is all but ignored by the characters, functioning as nothing more than a set piece. It is not until the final line, “And the deep river ran on,” that the reader understands its significance. In fact, that the river is ignored at all is telling. The lover’s declaration claims that their love is eternal and unaffected by the passage of time. The lovers ignore the river in the same way that they ignore the inevitability of time. The river demonstrates time as a continuum, constant and always flowing, but unlike the clocks, it gives the impression of change and possibility. The image of the river is in both the beginning and end of the poem. This framing demonstrates that the river, both literally and symbolically, existed before the lovers and the clocks and will continue to be after they are gone. “The lovers they were gone; / The clocks had ceased their chiming, / and the deep river ran on” (58-60). These people will pass, leaving no evidence of their ever having been, but the river remains the same as ever, just as time will run constantly well before and after we are around to see it. But the river is “brimming” and “deep,” so rather than being nihilistic, it is hopeful.
The three speakers of the poem offer a complex look at the nature and perception of time. The differing views range from the esoteric to the oppressive, but ultimately, time, like the river, is dynamic. It is not escapable as the lover’s song suggests, but neither is it the cruel and controlling tyrant as described by the clocks. Rather, it is a quiet and consistent force of possibility that proves everything to be in transition.
"Historic Figures: WH Auden." BBC. 8 May 2009. BBC. 8 May 2009 http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/auden_wh.shtml.
Summers, Claude J.. "Auden, W. H.." glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture. 2002. glbtq, Inc.. Web.8 May 2009. http://www.glbtq.com/literature/auden_wh.html.