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W. H. Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England in 1907, moved to the United States during his childhood and was educated at Christ Church, Oxford. As a young man he was influenced by the poetry of Thomas Hardy, Robert Frost, William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Old English verse.

His first collection Poems was privately published in 1928, then in 1930, his second book, also titled Poems (with different verses) was published and brought his work into the limelight, drawing him into the leadership role of the generation.

W H Auden was known for his versatility, his ability to write any theme and any form. He was highly prolific and very little escaped the attention of his pen. He was known to mimic the writing styles of other poets and to use his verse to journal life experiences and travels.

In addition to his impact on poetry, Auden was a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist. Generally considered the greatest English poet of the twentieth century, his work has influenced succeeding generations of poets around the world. He was a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets from 1954 until his death in 1973.

I selected one poem by W. H. Auden to share with you for two reasons. Although it appears to be long, the rhythm pulls the reader along and the length disappears. As I read, almost each individual verse could easily be presented as poem by itself.

As I Walked Out 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 an 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 the 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 to-day.

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

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

‘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 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.

Auden’s unusual writing style has been the subject of contemplation and debate. Most believe he was strongly influenced by the social climate of his childhood with his verse mimicking the vernacular shared between childhood friends. If so, he succeeded in presenting poetry in language and metaphors that surpass place and time.

I’m Beth Winter and I thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights. I hope you enjoyed this little peek at the poet W. H. Auden.

The W. H. Auden Society
Poetry Foundation