The poem in study is As I Walked out One Evening by W.H. Auden. His views projected in this poem are suggested to have not varied since the time he composed this piece. Unlike his other poems, this piece was never revised. Here, Auden exposes the two sides of romance through the manipulation of narrative voices, the poet, the lover’s song and the chiming of the clock personified.
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As I walked out one evening is composed in a traditional ballad form. It’s consists of 15 quatrain stanzas conforming to an “abcb” rhyme scheme. The masculine end rhyme employed gives more freedom of wording. It is through these settings that exhibits the song-like quality of a ballad and by this lyrical tune, Auden suggests the theme and theories examined in the poem are of childlike logic and knowledge.
With reference to the structure of the poem, it comprises of 15 stanzas split into three distinctive voices. The first and last being the narration by the poet himself, framing the Lover’s Song and the menacing voice of the clock. Through the beginning narration by the persona, W.H. Auden sets the essence of nostalgia with a “walk down Bristol Street”. The mention of Bristol Street creates the tone of reminiscence as it is a venue of Auden’s childhood. The contrast of “crowds upon the pavement” that use to be “fields of harvest wheat” showcases the change taken place during time-lapse.
Down by the brimming river, the poet hears a lover sing “love has no ending”. The transition of narrative position from the initial persona to the Love Song takes place through the marking of inverted commas. The rhythm of the poem also changes away from iambic tri-meter when the love song begins. The love song is hyperbolized, injected with imageries and unconventional similes to exaggerate the affections of a naïve lover. With suggestions of the uncanny ability to love “till China and Africa meet”, Auden captures their simplistic and unrealistic minds. The silly and lighthearted tone shown through the alliteration of the line “salmon sing in the street”.
In addition to undermining the forces of nature, the lover’s song seem to believe its love to be pure and immune to time, for “in my arms I hold The Flower of the Ages, And the first love of the world”. This love is expressed to be ageless, the Flower of the Ages a Biblical reference to the year of maturity in which a woman can marry. In a sense, the song provokes that the incredibility of love is beyond human entity, but of something greater.
However, the tone shifts in the 6th stanza, turning to the narration of the clock and time personified. They seem to be rebuking the ideals embodied by the Lover’s Song as they began to “whirr and chime”, an onomatopoeia that creates the image of violent and unsettling wind. The wind that could break them apart, hit their faces with a chill. The clock conveys the negative perception of naïve love as it rings out a series of advice to the lovers.
The Clock’s advice is like a progression of a 4 session counselling, speaking to us readers as if we are the young lovers. Marked by the phrase “O”, he begins with a gentle coaxing. “O let not time deceive you”, the idealism borne by the love song shall break through time’s passing. “O plunge your hands in the water” as if washing one’s face in the morning. Wake up from the hyperbolized world of love to reality. “Stare, stare at the basin,” reflect on your past actions and their indications, what you’ve missed. “O look, look in the mirror” examine your present self. Finally “O stand, stand at the window”, see your partner through the barrier of glass. Unclouded and unaffected by cruel words of a quarrel, in the peace of one’s own mind, then we shall see that we are all hypocrites in love.
The overall tone of the clock is quite dark and Auden uses the technique of contrasting metaphors to develop the negative effects of time in idealism. The “green valley” and “appalling snow” signifying the presence of time will eventually break momentary joy. “The glacier knocks in the cupboard, the desert sighs in the bed”, the consequences of time will invade one’s privacy and comfort, perhaps even home. Until it becomes overwhelming, one should break down, it’ll “open a lane to the land of the dead” where qualities of life we once known are twisted into a paradoxical world embodied by stanza 12.
There is however, a consolation to these negative aspects, that if we “wake up” in time, we shall learn to love truly, for life remains a blessing, even when we’re too focused on our distress. Throughout this entire process, the language suggests the lack of presence of the first persona. But this theory is contradicted by the last stanza where the “poet” narrates. “It was late, late in the evening”, the repetition a habit picked up from the clock’s speech. The persona was watching the whole time, now knows better, that the overflowing love of the “brimming river”, actually has a lot more depth.
W.H. Auden through the shift of narrative voices explores the different perspective of love. This technique shows us not only one sided opinions but various views. And readers are shown, that perhaps what is right in the minds of one, may vary to the eyes of another. The image of romance is often twisted to extremes by society. As human beings, we have the tendency to form opinions based on our own favours. To an extent, this poem may resemble a satire to society. Humans tend to be hypocrites and very good liars to even our own minds to justify our wrongdoings.