W. H. Auden Walks Out

As I walked Out One Evening held me transfixed from the start.
It must have been in 1992. We were bumping along through the desert canyons of Arizona, near Florence, a bunch of dusty art students on a landscape-painting trip. Our trip leader brought us deep into the recesses of Box Canyon, into some of the most gorgeous and awe-inspiring landscapes I have ever beheld. There was a battered anthology of poems in the van, so some of us were reading poems out loud to each other. My friend read this one and I loved it the first time I heard it. At one point I learned it by heart  but now only a few stanzas are still there in my memory. It grows on me every time I read it.

As in Song from the Coptic by J. Mangan, I love the juxtaposition of the continents and countries in those  great  lines:

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…

Then comes a sudden shift into existential horror after stanza 5:

But all the clocks in the city Began to whirr and chime…

“The burrows of the nightmare…” reminds one of parts of De Quincy’s Confessions, which is the best whacked-out yet articulate description of hallucinatory horror I have read. The chimes themselves are here.

I can picture so many of Auden’s  images: the cracked tea-cup, the threaded dances, the beggar with a wad of cash.  The “diver’s brilliant bow” is a strange image. Did he mean a rainbow? Something a diver would use to hunt fish? I sometimes see it as a berimbau—one of those Brazilian string instruments.

The poem begins and ends with the brimming river, which at the beginning seemed to brim with possibility but by the end has overflowed with melancholy. Yet it still holds out hope:

Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless.

We must strive to love our neighbors with our own sinful hearts.  It is about disillusion creeping into life and the subsequent need for perseverance and faith in the face of  “appalling snow” and glaciers creeping into what were the verdant fields of youth and idealism.

How do you interpret this poem?  Do you like this poem?

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