As I Walked Out One Evening, W.H. Auden, Summary, Analysis, and References

Text of the Poem

(Stanza 01)
As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

(Stanza 02)
And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
'Love has no ending.

(Stanza 03)
'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,

(Stanza 04)
'I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

(Stanza 05)
'The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.'

(Stanza 06)
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

(Stanza 07)
'In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

(Stanza 08)
'In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

(Stanza 09)
'Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver's brilliant bow.

(Stanza 10)
'O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you've missed.

(Stanza 11)
'The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

(Stanza 12)
'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

(Stanza 13)
'O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

(Stanza 14)
'O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.'

(Stanza 15)
It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

Compact Poem Summary

Stanza 01

As the narrator walks down the Bristol street in the evening, the crowded street looks like the fields of wheat in its harvest season, that is to say, the wheat in harvest season implies old age of the crowds

Stanza 02

While passing by the river that is brimming the narrator hears a young lover singing that love lasts forever while sitting underneath a railroad overpass.

Stanza 03

The singer promises in the song to love the beloved up till all kinds of impossibilities take place, including China and Africa colliding in continental drift, rivers crossing mountains and salmon fish singing out of water in the streets.

Stanza 04

Singer continues making idealist claims to love the beloved until oceans dry up and seven stars in the sky run around crying making sounds of geese.

Stanza 05

Time shall run as quick as a startled rabbit when the singer will hold the beloved (flower) in his arms, who is the most beautiful human throughout the ages and their love is the only true love which makes it the first true love of the world.

Stanza 06

The clocks begin to make sounds and respond to the poet's claims by singing that one should not be fooled since nobody wins against time and time conquers all. Their love can not be eternal because everything dies with time.

Stanza 07

In the nightmares of the idealist singer the Justice/Truth sits unclothed and undressed of all euphemism/lies. That is why, time coughs from behind the shadow when they kiss, that is, in the subconscious (shadow) they know that it wouldn't last inspite of their apparent claims.

Stanza 08

Worries and problems gradually devour the life and the time eventually wins now or later on when the death approaches.

Stanza 09

(again the poem discusses seasons, as it did in reference to harvest season) Time fills the fresh spring valleys with snow surprisingly. Time breaks every dance,that is to say, time breaks every process and brings an end to, no matter how much elegant be, the curve of every diver's fall. Everyone dies and nothings lasts.

Stanza 10

The time now seems to speak to all humans, telling them to wash their hands, look into the washbasin, and think for a moment what they have missed out on. (cleanse as religious ritual implied. Cleanse by washing away all the lies and impractical assumptions or claims).

Stanza 11

If you think for a moment, after the cleansing, you will find metaphorically cupboard containing glaciers and in the bed feel like a sighing empty desert devoid of any eternal meaning since mortal, and in even the crack of the teacup one will clearly see the dark path to the underworld.

Stanza 12

This underworld is the exposed reality and reality is absurd. In this moment of realization everything feels nonsensical, corrupt and meaningless. It is as absurd as beggers hold lotteries and give away prizes, the murderous giant from the fairytale "Jack and the Beanstalk" becomes charming, the innocent "lily-white boy" from old folk song becomes a noisy drunkard while Jill from "Jack and Jill" becomes promiscuous.

Stanza 13

Look in the mirror to contemplate, clocks say, face up your distress and disappointments, in the worst even, being is better than not-being, that is, life is a blessing one will realiise even when one can not believe this.

Stanza 14

Clocks continue: stand up and look through the window, feel your torturous tears and look at your imperfect and fallible fellow humans with your own imperfect and fallible heart. You will realise that you love them. This life is too short to hate.

Stanza 15

The narrator stays and notices, when it is late in the evening, lovers leave for home, clocks stop singing and the deep river flows on.

Analysis in Bullet Points

  • The poem was written somewhere in mid-1930s.
  • The rhyming scheme is ABCB.
  • It is a literary ballad with 15 quatrains and lyrical quality.
  • Love is not eternal but subject to the vicissitudes of time.
  • Three narrators in the poem: The Narrator, Singing lover, All the Clocks.
  • The narrator goes for a walk in the evening and compares crowded streets with field of wheat ready to be harvested which implies mortality and despair of the crowds.
  • Narrator hears the lover's idealist claims in his song.
  • The poem masterfully captures the deterioration of the body and the emotion; love.
  • Materialism over idealism: The poem breaks idealist assumptions of the lover: Love cannot withstand test of time.
  • Clocks remind the lover that life is still a blessing.
  • The absurdity and meaninglessness is expressed through description of underworld in Stanza 12.
  • Life is too short to hate and judge therefore clocks make people realise to love the humans and accept them with flaws and imperfections.
  • Auden is categorised in group of "left-wing" modernist poets.
  • The poems included in the collection Another Time, which also include "As I Walked Out One Evening," are the first ones Auden wrote in America after immigrating there from England in 1939.
  • Publication of Another Time indicates transition in Auden's life as Richard Johnson asserts in The Directory of Literary Biography:
    “the poems mark one of the balance points of Auden’s career, where lyrical gift, formal discipline, and ethical impulse come together, with considerable vitality, and in an idiom almost unique in modern poetry.”
  • Auden's early poetry is described by The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry as being obsessed with:
    “impending doom, of our general complicity in seemingly individual evil conduct.”
  • These comments can be examined to be true in context of this poem.

Words and Phrases in the Poem

Bristol Street

Bristol Street is a bustling industrial and multicultural hub in Birmingham, United Kingdom. Auden was raised in the Birmingham-area town of Solihull.

the seven stars

This maybe reference to either the constellation Pleiades as in mythology or end of days as mentioned in book of Revelations.

Giant is enchanting to Jack

Taken from the fairytale Jack and the Beanstalk.

the Lily-white Boy

Taken from the religious folksong O Green Grow the Rushes O....where the verse:

Two, two the lily-white boys/Clothed all in green Ho Ho
Read the Folksong

The lily-white boys are symbols of innocence and purity.

And Jill goes down on her back

Reference to the nursery rhyme Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water/Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after. Read the whole Rhyme

Here Jill is positioned dubiously in a sexual act.

love your crooked neighbour...

Inspired by the early English nursery rhyme There was a crooked man.

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