As the speaker walks out one evening along Bristol Street, he sees crowds upon the pavement like fields of wheat. Walking by the river he hears a lover sing: Love has no ending, and I will love you until “China and Africa meet,” until the river jumps over the mountain and the salmon sing throughout the streets. I will love you until the ocean is folded and hung up to dry, until the seven stars cry out like geese in the sky. The years run around like rabbits, and in my arms I hold “The Flower of the Ages,” the first love in the world.
All the clocks in the city start chiming, saying: Do not think you can conquer time. Deep in the Nightmare where Justice resides naked, Time watches and turns a kiss into a cough. Life fades always in headaches and worries, and Time will get what he wants either tomorrow or today. Snow fills the green valleys and breaks up the dances and the diver’s bow. Thrust your hands into the water, and look into the water to ponder what you have missed. Glaciers and deserts fill your home, and the crack in the teacup opens “a lane to the land of the dead.” Beggars sell off banknotes, Jack is enchanted by the Giant, and Jill is on her back. Look into the mirror and see that while life is a blessing, you cannot bless. Stand at the window and feel the hot tears, for you will “love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.”
After the clocks become quiet, it is late, and the lovers are gone. The deep river runs on.
"As I Walked Out One Evening" is a poem from the mid-1930s, Auden's early stage. It is a literary ballad with ABCB quatrains and other elements of the lyric poem. It is commonly read alongside “O Tell Me the Truth About Love" and “Lullaby,” the latter having a theme in common with it, since both the present poem and “Lullaby” temper their praise of love with an understanding that it is ephemeral and subject to the vicissitudes of time.
There are three speakers in the poem: the narrator, the singing lover, and all of the clocks in the city speaking as one. Zsuzsa Rawlinson argues that the poem “uses the typical ballad opening ... for an English pastoral or folk song” and simple diction, “although the poem’s structure, along with the three voices of which it is composed, reinforce as well as disrupt atemporal universality,” undermining the lovers’ song as the poem darkens.
The poem begins with the narrator walking out one evening along Bristol Street, likely in Birmingham, England, where Auden grew up. There are crowds on the street, but the narrator's attention is caught by a lover who is singing near the bridge. The lover begins his discourse on love. The main theme of his song is that since “Love has no ending” and will persist on absurd time scales, he will love his lover forever. Reality is not going to interfere.
“But,” says every clock in the city, “You cannot conquer time.” With brutal honesty, the clocks depict sickness and fatigue and similar realities of life and mortality. Death will encroach on the lovers’ bliss. In beautiful metaphors and other imagery, the poem brilliantly depicts the physical and emotional erosion, this growing darkness: “Into many a green valley / Drifts the appalling snow; / Time breaks the threaded dances / And the diver’s brilliant bow” is just one of many such stanzas. It would be foolish to assume love could be more powerful than Time (which Auden personifies by capitalizing the word).
Nevertheless, the clocks remind the lover, “Life remains a blessing” even though we cannot overcome mortality. The fleeting loves of life still matter, tragic though life is:
‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’
Despite human imperfections, despite mortality, loving one another is what Time and the clocks tell us we will do.
Finally, after the clocks are done telling the lover about Time, the speaker notices that the lovers are gone. Did they heed the advice or not? Either way, it seems that the lovers will share the night together, though they might appreciate the time more if they recognize it is limited. The poem ends by noting that “the deep river ran on,” suggesting a broader timelessness or a broader history in which the lovers are just one small part. At the same time we have learned that even the river will one day be no more.