First, he gives us a nice image that conjures up that golden hue we might expect at sunset and captures a sense of movement—the swaying wheat mirroring the movement of the crowd. Nice goin' W.H.
Secondly, and much less cheerfully, the metaphor also functions as a kind of harbinger (look it up) of bad things to come.
Think about it. This is "harvest wheat." That means it's going to be cut down soon. If we stick with the metaphor, the fields of wheat are the crowds of people, then this cutting down represents, you guessed it, death.
Don't believe us? Consider all those expressions that equate death to being cut down or mowed down. See? And how about this, back before combines and tractors, what tool was used to cut down wheat? Anyone? Anyone? Yup. A reaper.
And what figure famously carries one of these tools? Anyone? Anyone? It's that guy on all those heavy metal album covers, the harbinger of death himself (really, look it up) the Grim Reaper. But he's not harvesting wheat with his reaper—he's harvesting souls. Creepy.
You probably noticed something about the sounds in this first stanza. The end words in line 2 and 4 rhyme. Get used to it because it's going to happen in all of the poem's 15 stanzas.
And, speaking of stanzas, you might also have noticed that stanza one is a nice, tidy little 4-liner. You should get used to that as well. The entire poem is built of those little 4-line suckers, also known as quatrains.
In this quatrain, Auden rhymes street with wheat. The rhyme strengthens the connection between the urban and the rural environments set up by the metaphor by making them sound connected. The strengthened connection reinforces the idea that the people on the street, like the wheat in the field, are doomed. Bummer.
And down by the brimming river I heard a lover sing Under an arch of the railway: 'Love has no ending.
Things seem to be getting back on the cheerful track here. The speaker overhears a lover singing down by the river. Sounds nice. The lover is proclaiming, "Love has no ending." In the eyes of the lover, love cannot be stopped or defeated. It's like the Energizer Bunny of emotions.
We have that rural/urban connection again. This time it isn't in the rhyme. Instead, it's in the end words of lines 5 and 7. Our attention is drawn to the words river and railway as they dangle there at the end of the line, both beginning with R. One thing is natural, one is manmade. Both can be followed or used for a journey. They are different in one key respect: railways have a definite end point. With rivers the ending is, well, more fluid. Notice that it's the manmade thing that has the concrete ending point. The river doesn't.
This is a good spot to mention that rivers often represent the passage or movement of Time. Seems like Time is the thing with no ending. We're not so sure about Love anymore. And that river is "brimming," nearly overflowing the containment banks.
Sounds a little threatening, right? Like the river might sweep those lovers away. Okay, so maybe this isn't such an optimistic stanza after all.
The stanza ends with the word ending. Hmmm. With all this subtle ending going on, Shmoop is not sure if we buy this stanza's last line, "Love has no ending." What do you think?
'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,
Line 9 picks up where 8 left off with the lover's words to the beloved. This guy is really pouring it on. (Notice the quotation marks indicating that these words are not those of the poet/speaker but rather those of the lover to the beloved.)
Basically, the lover is claiming that his love will endure until the end of time (Shmoop's heard that one before) and he uses some pretty dramatic examples to get this point across.
We have continents running into each other, rivers jumping over mountains, and to top it all off, singing fish.
Auden is using personification, giving human qualities to non-human or even inanimate things, to make some of these examples even more dramatic. We can also see a mixing of the natural and manmade realms. In the previous stanzas, the different realms had their own lines (despite the fact that we were being asked to compare them, they were still separate—street on one line, wheat on another). Now the fish are in the street (and in the same line). What's more, the fish are "singing" like something straight out of the next Pixar blockbuster. This sets up an even closer connection between realms (in fact they seem to be one and the same). Remember that metaphor back in the first stanza? That doomed wheat? Things aren't looking good for the human side of that equation.