It is possible to be irritated at the wilful obscurity of much of the early Auden but still to acknowledge that he was at least trying to do something different, and then when it worked the results were sensational. Had anything been heard before in English poetry quite like this mordant blend of folksong and nursery rhyme, where the words seem to dance to a ghostly tune that one can never quite identify?
As I Walked Out One Evening
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 all 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.
The lines about time coughing as you kiss is just glorious!
The folk-song tone works for this poem. It’s his Brecht-and-common-man period, I think.