Tom Hiddleston’s rendition is a thing of beauty (scroll down for it), but his voice alone is not what convinced me that Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening” needed to be the first poem I commit to memory. Poems with a narrative structure are easier to memorize than those that are one long description (e.g., Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard). “As I Walked Out” has enough poetic language about love to feel fragile, enough talk of time to feel weighty, and enough abstract lines for well-spaced mental hooks.
I found I wasn’t able to recall the poem in its entirety until I stopped thinking of it as “this line, then this line, then this line.” Instead, it helped to follow the twists and turns from love, to time, to death, and so on. Lines that seemed like background filler on the page came to mean more when I needed to focus on them to hold them in my memory, e.g., “Into many a green valley/ Drifts the appalling snow”.
I was fortunate to have a couple people quiz me on the poem as I learned it—not only because it’s an easy quiz to ask someone to follow along with a print copy while reciting, but because almost everyone comes up with better mnemonics than I do:
Me: And something something brimming river.
Him: Are you kidding me?
Him: You can’t remember ‘down by the river’ as in ‘living in a van [arm motions] DOWN BY THE RIVER’
Me: Oh my god.
And that’s how I got over the second-stanza hurdle.
On day four, I had my first successful run-though entirely from memory. It happened in the shower; though I couldn’t immediately check myself, I knew I’d gotten it. The sensation was exactly the same as earning a good score at school, except my recitations aren’t graded and no one is nearly so excited about them as I am.
Real Life Dialogue:
Them: Why are you memorizing poetry? Is this, like, a party trick?
Me: It can’t be, because no one wants to hear me recite poetry at a party. Or anywhere else.
On day five, I had a pile of laundry to fold and amused myself by working on my delivery. The trouble with rhyming poems is that they’re super easy to remember if you stress the rhyming words as a reminder of where a line is going, but this style can make even the greatest poems sound sing-song-y and childlike. If you want a recitation to sound half-pleasant, you need to know it cold to bend and shape as needed.
If you’d like to play along at home, here is Auden’s wondrous poem in its entirety.
“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,
And 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 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.
If you’d like to hear this read in Tom Hiddleston’s golden voice with his brilliant timing:
Next Up: “Ulysses” by Lord Tennyson