If you read this one aloud (and Shmoop thinks that's always a good idea with poems) you might get the feeling that you've heard something similar before. What you're recognizing is probably the form and meter that Auden chose for this one. He wrote "As I Walked Out One Evening" as a ballad.
See, Auden wanted there to be a strong association with song. (Remember, he even included this poem once in a section entitled "Songs and Other Musical Pieces.") Ballads are something you're probably familiar with as a traditional form for lots of famous children's poems and songs. Here's an example you might remember. The sing-songy ballad rhythm pushes the reader to consider elements of childhood. It's a place Auden wanted us to go because by acknowledging childhood, the poem's themes of time and aging are enhanced.
Typically ballads are written in rhymed, 4 line stanzas called quatrains. The rhyme scheme is usually ABCB (the end words of lines 2 and 4 rhyme). The first and third lines have four stressed syllables each and the second and fourth lines have three stresses each (alternating 4 stress and 3 stress lines).
Let's take a look at how Auden uses the ballad form in "As I Walked Out…"
- Quatrains? Check.
- ABCB rhyme scheme? Check.
- Alternating 4-stress and 3-stress lines?
Auden chose to use a slightly different metrical pattern for this one. Many lines are iambic (I'll love you, dear, I'll love you). Others aren't (O look, look in the mirror). What does stay consistent throughout the poem is that each line contains 3 stressed syllables (rather than alternating 4/3). Iambs may come and go, but that 3 stress-beat stays steady.
W.H. was wicked smart, so you can bet he wasn't just letting those stressed and unstressed syllables fall into place in random order. He knew what he was doing. If we look carefully, we can see that Auden uses metrical changes to enhance the content and feeling in the lines. Take a look at these three lines:
- look, look in the mirror
- stand, stand at the window
- It was late, late in the evening
By sticking those repeated, stressed words right next to one another, the sound of the line mirrors the tick-tock of a clock counting the passing time. If Auden had left these lines in iambs, that sound quality would have been lost.
Here's another example:
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.
In this stanza, Auden combines iambs, with three syllable anapestic (unstressed, unstressed, stressed) feet to give the stanza a kind of nursery rhyme sound. You might be thinking, "Hey, Shmoop said that the sound would mirror the content. The content of these lines is dark and creepy, but the sound is kind of playful. What gives?" Good catch Shmoopers—and great question.
You are right about the sound not really matching the content of these lines. But this stark difference between the sound and the content does mirror one of the key themes at work in the poem: that Time is always at work and Death is lurking everywhere. Even when we are young, we are moving toward death. So, gloomy content with a nursery rhyme feel makes sense here. See. We told you he was smart.