There is a certain level of hesitation that is often experienced when it comes to one’s acceptance of time. One may see this uncertainty not only in others’ but perhaps in his or her own perceptions. There is much speculation surrounding time and what happens when one’s time on earth finally reaches its end. The nature of time, in itself, is a scary reality. Not only does time play a very personal role in the lives of all of humanity, but it also plays a prominent part in many of the works included in modern and contemporary poetry. We see the positions of various poets when it comes to the concept of time, whether it be a position of optimism or pessimism. There is one thing that is certain, however; one never knows when his or her time on earth is up. Time is, essentially, all we have. W. H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening”, can be viewed as a prime example of a poem which revolves around the theme of the finite nature of time.
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Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” is an exchange between a lover and the clocks that cut his assertions of love short. No matter what promises the lover makes – “Till China and Africa meet, / And the river jumps over the mountain / And the salmon sing in the street”(10-12) – Time will be not only be observing, but will also be willingly prepared to draw attention to the fact that more time has gone by. The lovers understand that they are an hour closer to their mortal destinies. With the use of allegory, the poem gives Time its own voice and in turn reprimands the young lovers for their careless optimism. The message Time conveys to the lovers is obvious: “In headaches and in worry / Vaguely life leaks away” (29-30). Our time on earth is finite, much like the sand of an hourglass that pours out from top to bottom from the moment we are born. Although the finite nature of time may not be enough, Auden moves towards the idea that it has to be because it is all we have.
A background set to match this exchange between mortality and eternity is the “brimming river” (5) where the speaker stops to listen to the lovers. The river is used as a metaphor for Time because of the way it flows: it goes on endlessly and goes on even as we do not. No matter what small connection we may make with the water in the flowing river, it keeps flowing past us. No matter how hard we may try we could never stop the river from flowing. Similarly, the bells of the clock tower remind us of the Time that is passing–the time that will not stop for us:
But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
“O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time” (21-24).
The underlying theme of Time is the cycle of life or perhaps the rotation of the seasons. The speaker may already be thinking about the passing seasons of his own life when the crowds remind him of “harvest wheat.” Auden portrays the wheat in terms of time: fall is frequently used as a metaphor for old age. It is the final stage of the life cycle; the flowers have blossomed and the cold winter is on its way. Here the speaker sees the crowd and is perhaps reminded of the cycle we all experience as we head towards our elder years. “Even the young lovers will grow pale with old age, just as “into many a green valley / Drifts the appalling snow” (33-34). There is tragedy that lies in beauty and youth; neither of them last and eventually we grow old and disintegrate.
Auden metaphorically portrays Time in terms that are almost disturbing, as it dwells “in the burrows of the nightmare” (25) and watch the lovers from the shadows. It pauses just until they are about to complete their love with a kiss before it coughs and interrupts with its opposition. The same church bells that chime the hour also ring for the dead and on this night near the river both bells have the same sounds. The speaker, as he walks along the river down Bristol Street, may have found himself further down that lane than he anticipates, as he ends up somewhere between the lovers and “all the clocks in the city” (21). Standing there as the bells ring, he loses track of time, hearing a complete song in reply to the lover’s singing. He soon realizes how much time has passed: “It was late, late in the evening, / The lovers they were gone” (61-62). Here, we see the speaker as he spends his time observing others. In the process, he never gets to experience his own life, on his own time. As soon as he knows it, a great deal of time has passed; so much in fact, that the lovers have gone away-indicating that they have used up their own mortal time on earth and the speaker has wasted a great deal of his own time through his relentless observation of them.
The poem incorporates two different ideas conveyed by the songs. Auden ultimately invites us to evaluate the viewpoints of the lover and the clocks that are clearly at odds with one another. The lover argues that love is everlasting and eternally young while the clocks assert that all of life, including love, is subject to time and decay. Although Auden does not want o deny the lover’s optimism, he ultimately gives more acknowledgment to the clocks’ practical outlook.
The clocks’ song is less emotional and more detached than the lover’s. They “whirr and chime” and dispute that time is more powerful than anything human, even love: “Time watches from the shadow / And coughs when you would kiss” (27-28). Time is a silent and inevitable force that disrupts even the most joyous of moments and can replace a kiss that brings people closer, with a cough that pushes them apart. The clocks uphold that Time is the triumphant force since it is a race that can never be won by humanity and there are never any exceptions to its limits nor are there any survivors of its boundaries. As the clocks describe it, “In headaches and in worry / Vaguely life leaks away” (29-30). The clocks go on and we see that time not only presents trivial worries such as headaches, but it also carries greater dangers: “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.” The items mentioned are all objects found in one’s home. The greater powers of the external world can infiltrate even such personal places as the ones we call home. Even death, perhaps the greatest threat of all, can make its way into this domestic place. The cracked tea-cup represents the effects of time. It is evidence that things diminish as time goes by and it illustrates the human condition. We are, essentially, born to die because Time is bound to take its course.
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Auden personifies the clocks by giving them the ability to speak. In reality, these clocks do not have the capacity for human language. The clocks’ argument, like the lover’s, may well be taking place inside the poet’s head. The poet is thinking about the nature of human life, and in the clocks’ song there are several references to vision as well as literal reflections. In one of the clocks’ songs, the clocks urge:
O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress;
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless. (49-52).
Here, the mirror portrays an image of sorrow while the downbeat voice of the stanza is fit by the statement that “Life remains a blessing” (52). Nonetheless, the clocks make it clear that humans are not capable of valuing the joys of life and give one final order: “You shall love your crooked neighbour /With your crooked heart” (55-56). The clocks’ song cuts the lover’s optimism and certainty short. Auden gives the clocks three times as many stanzas as the lover to state their ideas about life, love, and time. This imbalance, along with the fact that the clocks get the last word in the discussion, demonstrates that their viewpoint is the prevailing one. The clocks do not, however, get the last word in the poem.
In the final stanza, the speaker is finished quoting them and returns to speak in his own voice. Many hours have passed since the start of the poem. The crowds, along with the lovers, are gone. The sounds of clocks have stopped and the poem concludes “the deep river ran on” (60) This line hints towards hopefulness as it may indicate that the cycle presented in the poem will recur and that lovers as well as those who believe in love, will again sing of their hopes and passions, despite the dire assertions of clocks and other reminder’s of the reality of time. On the contrary, the concluding line may be disparaging-the river seems to be symbolic of time’s unyielding onward motion. The river appears to have little concern for the human world and is unchanged by joy and grief. In spite of the inevitability of human fate, nature and time will continue to move forward with or without us, as it has done for countless years. Auden seems to advance the clocks’ message over the lover’s perhaps because he cannot refute the fact that love is stifled by the complexities and boundaries of life. On the other hand, poetry, unlike love or the life spans of human beings, has the potential to forwardly and eternally progress. “As I Walked Out One Evening” and other poems must end, however, poetry as a figure of human accomplishment, has the chance to live on.
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