W.H. Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening” belongs to the long tradition of poems chronicling the struggle between love and time. Like others, Auden’s lover uses images of “The Flower” (l. 19) and grandiose claims of love “Till China and Africa meet” (l. 10) to impress or coax the unseen lover to comply with his wishes. However, Auden deviates from this tradition in other ways. For example, these other works are mainly seduction poems. In Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, time is (by association) a third party to a seduction, invoked to create fear and put pressure on the seducée by reminding her of her mortality- as well as the seducer’s own vulnerability, and thus goad her towards his own ends. “As I Walked Out One Evening” is a narrative poem, and essentially a dialogue between a lover speaking to the unseen love and time responding to counter his claims. Auden argues that people are unaware of the world they live in and do not truly understand what it means to love and live by usage of apocalyptic images and a running motive of both time and water.
“As I Walked Out One Evening” was written in 1937, a time of turmoil throughout the world and especially in Europe: the world was in hiatus between “the war to end all wars” and the second “war to end all wars” and Hitler was at this time gradually rising in power. Auden was very aware of the political climate, and this is reflected in his diction in the latter part of the poem. The fact that there are three distinct parts to this poem, the lover’s speech and the two halves of time’s speech, is indicative of the contemporary political clime: because the first World War was so horrifying many people could not believe and did not want to believe that it could happen again, and were unaware of the growing signs of another war around them. Although the poem features paradoxes throughout, the tone goes from light and whimsical using fantastical comparisons such as “I’ll love you till the ocean/Is folded and hung up to dry” (ll. 9-10), to very dark and ominous predictions such as “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/A lane to the land of the dead” (ll. 47-48).
Throughout “As I Walked” Auden uses images of the mundane and things of nature to describe human love and idealism and also human folly. The first part of the poem is the lover speaking: the language reflects his naiveté, in particular:
The years shall run like rabbits
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages”
And the first love of the world. (ll.17-20)
His love will make the years fly by and yet his lover transcends time as she is both “the Flower of the Ages” and “the first love of the world” (ll. 19-20). He uses images like “salmon sing” and “the seven stars go squawking” (ll. 15-18): joyous, capricious and frivolous images which evoke a giddy sort of mood. It is a lovely and very dream-like set of stanzas, which contrasts starkly with the second parts which are nightmare-like and more realistic.