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Symbol Analysis

Moving and flowing and churning things up, water is the quintessential symbolic image for motion and change. That's a good thing, folks. Change can be difficult, but it's natural, just like water. It's immobility that's actually strange and uncomfortable. Auden builds up a dense network of water metaphors to help him describe the way poetry can function in our sad, sorry lives.

  • Line 9: Check out the strange adjectives Auden attaches to water here: it's personified as a "peasant" river and a "fashionable" quay (wharf).
  • Line 17: The soul moves, see. It's always growing and changing and persisting – even when the body starts to collapse in on itself. The imagery in this line helps link Yeats's soul to his poetry, which is also described with water-like language.
  • Line 38: Here's where poetry gets the metaphoric motion that Auden wants art to have: it's imagined as a river snaking through landscapes of concrete and congestion. Ever notice how trickles of water seem to emerge from nowhere in the middle of a city sidewalk? That's the sort of persistence that our speaker is talking about.
  • Lines 52-53: Water isn't always a good thing: in these lines, the "seas of pity" "frozen" inside people become a potent image of failed compassion. There's something about us that makes it so darn difficult to actually care about other people – at least, that's what our speaker seems to think.
  • Lines 62-63: Not to worry, though: our speaker's got a solution. Remember that trickling water from section I? Now it's a full-blown fountain (not to mention a full-blown metaphor). Poetry is the water that allows our souls to ripen and grow.

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