Last Post on Tme (for the moment)


All the clocks in the city

For the very last post in this series of time-blogs I’m sharing my very favourite poem;

As I Walked Out One Evening
W. H. Auden, 1907 – 1973

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.

This poem has always engrossed me, with its simplicity of form and its multi-layered meanings. Looking back, this and the other Auden poem I discussed a few posts back, Time will say nothing but ‘I told you so.’, must have triggered my unscientific but deep fascination with Time/time.

What we have here is of course another personification of Time, as an entity with motivations and actions directed towards humanity, in this case almost wholly malevolent. Introduced in the first stanza by allusion, Time is a person with a scythe, as Old Father Time is often depicted. But is he not, in this case, more a personification of Death?

The crowds upon the pavement
were fields of harvest wheat.

Time may be present here in one aspect, that of the returning seasons which have come round again to harvest; but what happens to harvest wheat? It dies, and is eventually eaten or reseeded into the earth, to spring up again like Osiris, ‘the green blade rising’. Yet as this year’s individual harvest it dies, conflating Time with Death. The crowds upon the pavement are doomed to death, and the lover’s assertion of the immortality of love is hollow.

Following stanzas delineate how Time/Death destroys human happiness and hope, how it ‘breaks the threaded dances’ and how the awareness of mortality breeds despair.

The dark heralds of this message of gloom are ‘all the clocks in the city.’ But we should remember that these, as the servants and measurers of Time, are biased in their representation of Time and in their assertion, therefore, that it is all-powerful and that its power is of destruction.

Very many people to whom I have recommended this poem have found it depressing and miserable, but over the 50+ years I have been studying it, I have come to the opposite conclusion. I believe that in the apparently simple closing stanza, and particularly the last line, Time is revealed as a braggart and something – what? – is revealed as stronger than Time and Death.

Here are the last two lines again;

The clocks had ceased their chiming
And the deep river ran on.

Two points about that remarkable last line

1) It breaks the ballad rhythm of the poem, and asserts its right to be pronounced in ordinary speech-rhythm.

2) It raises the question ‘What is the river in this context?

It is something that continues after the minions of time have gone silent, after the contemplation of doom and death. Ironically, the river is often used to symbolise the linear concept of time, but here it seems instead to be that ‘something that, defeated, still endures,’ of which Muir spoke. I don’t pretend to have the exact definition of what the river symbolises in this line. After Auden’s return to Christianity, he might perhaps have labelled it ‘Eternity’ but to me neither that nor vague approximations such as ‘life-force’ rings quite true. Whatever it is, it’s one in the eye for Time.

And the deep river ran on


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