Walking down Bristol Street, The crowds upon the pavement Were fields of harvest wheat. (2-4)
From the very first stanza, Auden sets up a comparison/connection between the manmade world and the natural world. The metaphor transforms the crowds of people milling around on city streets into fields of wheat. Cool. But just the metaphor wasn't enough for our boy W.H. He went ahead and reinforced the comparison with the strong rhyme between street (manmade) and wheat (natural world). The sound ties the two together. Auden really wanted to establish this connection early. Mission accomplished.
And down by the brimming river I heard a lover sing Under an arch of the railway: (5-7)
Auden must have been a believer of that old adage more is always better. In stanza 2, he repeats what he did in stanza 1. This time he connects river and railway, but not by rhyming as he did with street and wheat. This time Auden uses audiovisual similarities: both words share that initial R and they are both end words, hanging there, begging for our attention.
By connecting these two words, one from the natural world and one from the manmade realm, we might find ourselves considering each thing a little differently. Rivers are, in a sense, nature's train tracks and with train tracks humans kind of copied rivers (minus the water, of course).
'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, (9-12)
Yup. Something is different here. Instead of separating the two realms (the manmade and the natural getting their own lines as in stanzas 1 and 2), now everything is all mixed together. The river is personified. It's given human characteristics. It jumps. The salmon are personified, too. They sing. Plus, Auden places them in the street. You don't have to be a nature-nut to know that salmon belong in the river, not on the road. Now that Auden has the two realms all mixed together, he can show us how Time treats both realms the same. Despite what those lovers might think.
I'll love you till the ocean Is folded and hung up to dry (13-14)
The lover's claims seem ridiculous: the jumping river, the singing mountain, and now this idea that the oceans can be handled like laundry. It makes us realize just how crazy it is to imagine that Love might conquer (outlast) Time. It's just not going to happen. (Apologies to all the lovers out there. We hate to burst a good bubble.)
For in my arms I hold The Flower of the Ages, (18-19)
The lover calls his beloved, "The Flower of the Ages." Flattering? Sure. Not the cutest nickname, but we get the idea. Now, consider this: flowers are certainly beautiful, but they are typically a little weak in the endurance department. Flowers bloom, look pretty, and then they die. They loose their color, the petals fall off, they wrinkle up, get a bit stinky and a lot ugly, and that's it. Again, Shmoop apologizes for casting dark clouds over all this love stuff, but Auden is the one you should really be blaming. Shmoop is just the messenger.