Wednesday, September 05, 2007

"As I Walked Out One Evening"

A Walk

Ron Penner headshot by Ron Penner

W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden

This poem, by Wystan Hugh Auden I have known for years and always considered it to be one of the most remarkable of poems, written in the English language in the twentieth century. There were always images in it that eluded me as to their origin, and still do, but the magic, the word magic of the poem was such that this did not matter. They all seemed right, even as I could not say why and this made the poem even more magical and wondrous. Then one insomniac night in January, I determined to wrestle with this poem, to analyze it as far as possible and extract its deeper meaning and the source of its unforgettable appeal. But I misremembered much of it, so I reread it the next morning and began refining a coherent interpretation that could do some measure of justice to this great work. The interpretation lies not on the surface and would not be evident, I believe, to a casual reader of the poem, and I thought that perhaps this type of analysis might be of some interest. I recall a television program on Auden long ago in which he walked out of his house into his Bentley and drove off, all the while nonchalantly reciting this poem. I thought, he could have chosen from among scores of his poems for this charade, but he chose this one. Ergo, one of the greatest poets of the century chose this poem as possibly his best work. For future reference, the poem is included in full on the next page.

Several assumptions need to be made. There may be several levels of interpretation of a poem; to seek the deepest one is, I would argue, to also seek the most internally consistent, and this latter has been my aim. I take it for granted that the poem means what its author intended. Deconstructing a poem or any work of literature is akin to an attempt to cure a patient by an operation to rearrange bodily organs. The patient dies! And if the creators take this seriously, nothing but trivia remains. I assume that all imagery in the poem ultimately relates to evolving mental and spiritual states that progress from a wild, headless Romanticism to a deep understanding and acceptance of Reality with Time serving metaphorically as a mediator. And if this poem is about changing inner realities, the lover and lovers of the poem must arise from that inner reality and not be independent of it. Whether this poem is autobiographical in nature or an Everyman poem, I do not know. I suspect that it is neither, but refers to the Artistic Age in which Auden fully participated, ending with the sobering and somber realities and realizations of World War II. In support of this as addressing his own between-the-wars' generation one can quote a famous, earlier concluding stanza from "September 1, 1939." (See previous page.) These lines suggest, not so much a refusal to accept reality as an isolation from reality, although both I believe are present, and thus make the "lover's song"---the poem is actually titled "Song: As I Walked Out One Evening"---more understandable. For lovers, in the deepest moments of their romance, can be almost oblivious to all else the is going on around them. This should then be considered, I believe, as transferred to the generation between the wars, the generation which slept through history, with all the tragedy that that ultimately entailed. Just as Romeo and Juliet seemed perfectly oblivious to the problems that they were causing their respective families and the entire city of Verona.

As I Walked One Evening

by W. H. Auden

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

And down by the brimming river
     I heard a lover sing
Under the arch of the railway
     "Love has no ending.

I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
     Till China and Africa meet
And the river jumps over the mountain
     And salmon sing in the street.

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.

The years shall run like rabbits
     For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages
     And the first love of the World."

But all the clocks in the city
     Began to whirr and chime:
"O let not Time deceive you,
     You cannot conquer Time."

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

In headaches and in worry
     Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
     To-morrow or today.

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

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.

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.

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

O look, look in the mirror,
     O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
     Although you cannot bless.

O stand, stand at the window
     As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
     With your crooked heart."

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

September 1, 1939

by W. H. Auden

Faces along the bar
     Cling to the average day:
The lights must never go out,
     The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
     To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
     Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
     Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

There are two long quotations in the poem of about equal length, but they are totally different. The first, with a headlong romanticism, treats Reality as whatever you choose or want it to be; the second is a painful coming to terms with Reality and with the wisdom that is thereby gained. The first is symbolized by the brimming river, about to overflow its banks and leave havoc and destruction in its wake and the deep river, no longer a threat but useful to all Mankind. And the second quotation not only delineates painful aspects of Reality which must be accepted, but delineates three stages of spiritual regeneration necessary for the deep wisdom of the deep river to "flow on." Finally, that the poem seems to encapsulate the experiences of a lifetime, yet only a few moments had passed - "the clocks had ceased their chiming" - and that this sense, does or should add an element of depth to the poem which lifts it far beyond the ordinary. Auden was a meteor of his generation, a satirical and despairing poet of his Age who yet wrote the conclusion of "In Memory of W. B. Yeats."

With the farming of a verse
     Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
     In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart
     Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
     Teach the free man how to praise."

If this poem is, to some extent, autobiographical, it traces that evolution. Now to a brief review and comment upon some of the lines of the poem. The poem begins with the most arresting and extraordinary image; the prosaic Bristol Street upon which were a crowd that was "a field of harvest wheat." How does that opening image serve the poem as a whole? First, it serves to signal to the reader that this is no ordinary poem. But the image stands alone, and it is the only one that can definitely be ascribed to the one who is experiencing this journey of the spirit, everything else could be ascribed to the lover and "all the clocks in the city" or to Time itself. So what does it portend? This is a hallucination of a kind that might be induced by a rare and benign LSD trip. This is intended to herald that the first quote deals with Unreality and the effort of the mind to create its own Reality and the destructive consequences of that, no matter how lovely they may appear. The lover's 'song' knows no limits and creates an impossible Universe and Time thunders its rebuke, despite the nobility of his intentions. Those two lines: "But all the clocks in the city began to whirr and chime:" First, prosaically, one cannot possibly hear "all the clocks in the city" and this poem is experiential. This indicates both an illusory state of mind and a heightened sense of perception. "Whirr and chime?" Whirr signifying disorder, chime signifying order in three words and one perception seems to presage a divided Mind which perceives opposites as a whole, but without synthesis.

Suddenly everything changes, very abruptly. That thundering proclamation: "O let not Time deceive you, You cannot conquer Time." intervenes and severs the poem into two parts. I remember a Shakespearean scholar once saying that whenever you see, in reading, time capitalized by Shakespeare, you should pause and reflect, for he always then has something profound to impart. I imagine Auden remembering that when he wrote these lines. Yet here time is capitalized not once, but four times in the short space of a few lines. Is this an excess of profundity? profundity running amok? profundity on holiday? I think not, for Time itself has its lessons to teach and part of coming to terms with Reality, in the first part of the second quotation is coming to terms with time. And when you capitalize time, you are not referring to quotidian time, but to eternal time or something akin to it. Thus in this very subtle way he introduces questions of the Ultimate, for I imagine that the last thing Auden wanted to be considered was another Eliot.

Then follow three stanzas of negative aspects of Reality that this life must come to terms with. The first is disillusionment, the second dissipation, and lastly sorrow and loss. Consider the second and its second line, "Vaguely life leaks away."

"The sound must echo of the sense" wrote Pope, and this line magnificently fulfills that dictum through the velocity of language, i. e., 'vaguely life leeeeaks awway.' The line slows to an appropriate crawl. And, "You cannot conquer Time." and "Time will have its fancy..." There are many realities, many events you cannot control, unlike your attempts to control it through you own recreation of it. I must pause to note those marvelously evocative two lines:

"Into many a green valley drifts the appalling snow."(Let them stand without comment.) And Time even brings to an end Siva's many dances. The next two stanzas introduce real Evil and dread. The second stanza is curious but very effective, for it introduces evil from English nursery rhymes, thus evil hiding under a thin veneer of innocence, a sugarcoated evil which makes it all the more nightmarish.

After all of these negative aspects of reality that must be accepted for growth to occur comes tasks for spiritual regeneration. In three brief stanzas, three stages of such a regenerative process are limned. The first involves cleansing, the second unflinching self-examination, the third a deep measure of regret. Consider how strongly the second line of both the first and second stanzas reinforces the first lines. "O plunge your hands in water, Plunge them up to the wrist." "O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress."

Then comes that lofty yet down to earth denouement, all so unexpected: "You shall love your crooked neighbour with your crooked heart." By twice using the adjective 'crooked' Auden escapes from any charge of didacticism or pious moralizing and ends the second quotation on Reality with an uncompromising adjective, twice given. But as with any such valid moral injunction, it extends beyond itself to alter whatever it touches, thus these two denouement lines can be read as branching out to all of the ethical life of Man.

The final stanza says more, I believe, than any of the others. Each line has a significant message to tell and each integrates with the rest of the poem. "It was late, late in the evening."

It was late in life when this evolution or series of transformations began and ultimately were realized. Perhaps it is always late, or seems so. "The lovers they were gone:"

This is the most complex line to interpret, and I do not want the interpretation to seem forced, so I would only ask that it be considered only in the light of all the rest. I wrote at the beginning that this was a poem of only a unitary consciousness, that the images were ultimately intended to indicate mental and spiritual states and stages of growth and evolution. If this be so, then there can be no outside voices, they all come from within one consciousness. Then, the lover who speaks the first quote is part of that unitary consciousness. But lovers?! Yes, for this symbolizes or indicates a divided self, the divided self of the first part of the poem. The reception of that speech is divided from the speech itself. That self was badly fractured and a significant part of the growth and healing of the second part of the poem, though unstated, was the unification of that self. But the "lovers... were gone." 'Gone' has a finality to it meant to imply that that aspect of the self had not just been transformed, it had died. "The clocks had ceases their chiming." How long does it take clocks to chime? What seemed like half a lifetime had passed in only a few moments. "And the deep river ran on." The river of life which this represents, was now a very different river from the brimming river of the first part of the poem. Now it was on an altogether different plane, secure within its banks, its depth signifying all the hard won wisdom that had been gained, a benefit and no longer a threat to the plain, flowing securely on to eventually join the ocean. But all that the ocean implies lies beyond the scope of this poem, for it is not spoken of, therefore neither shall I speak of it.

Thus the central problem of this poem is how to account for the sudden need for repentance and atonement, for regeneration and reform which so dramatically and suddenly divides this poem into two parts. Some might say that I have been grasping at straws. I would reply that I have been grasping, but only for any clues and interpretations from the poem that might provide a holistic and well-rounded rationale for those needs.

Ron Penner and Bob Seitz
The author and his friend Bob Seitz converse


keystrike said...

I enjoyed reading your interpretation, thanks! I had been searching for some insight into to this beautiful poem.

college student said...

thank you for your interpretation. i choose this poem out of a book for my literary analysis paper and it gave me great insight into the meaning of the poem. thanks a lot.

Anonymous said...

I'd also like to thank you for this interpretation! It's very insightful, and has given me an altogether different perspective on this poem. I am currently studying Auden's work in English class, and this is a wonderous interpretation of his work.I wish I was as productive in a bout of insomnia!

Greg said...

Thank you for your effort and comments. Can you analyze the meters, too? Thank you.

Tori said...

Your interpretation is so on track. I loved everything you said almost as much as i loved the poem itself. It was simply wonderful.