• Jo

Can the poetry of love conquer geological time?

Updated: Jul 5, 2020

The use of absurd sounding naturally occurring events in ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ is considered to be prime examples of hyperbole in poetry. But as a geologist I read the poem differently. Did Auden know something the rest of didn’t when he wrote it? Did he use ground breaking geologically discoveries to evoke a much more deeper meaning of love? I have often wondered this since first reading his words and with some new found time on my hands I thought I’d take a look. Here’s what I found.


I came across W.H Auden’s poem ‘As I Walked Out One Evening’ whilst I was flicking through some books on the shelf at my mum and dad’s house. It is 60 lines long with 15 verses (the entire poem is included at the end) and is written as a literary ballad with ABCB quatrains. There are three ‘voices’; the narrator, the singing lover, and all the clocks in the city, featured throughout. The third and fourth verses stood out to me in particular.

(3)'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,
(4)'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.

It is the start of how the ‘singing lover’ describes the length of time love will abide. The sentences included in these two verses are often used in English Literature as examples of hyperbole. It is utilised in poetry to exaggerate or evoke strong feelings. The ‘singing lover’ tries to express love and devotion until a time when these events will occur. The use of what sounds like absurd natural events that in all unlikelihood will never occur means that the expression of love is eternal and everlasting.

I read these lines as a geologist and rather than seeing the hyperbole of love I saw it as the perfect way to describe the geological history of my PhD field area. This was a decade ago and I have often wondered if Auden meant this or if it was merely a coincidence.

Jumping rivers and folded oceans

When I discovered the poem, I was in the middle of conducting my PhD research. I was studying the Permo-Triassic fluvial sedimentology of central Spain. To put it simply, I spent four years studying sediments that had been deposited in a river that once flowed across Spain 250 million years ago. Back then Spain, or the Iberian plate as geologists call it, wasn’t where it is now. All the continents that existed prior, including the Iberian plate, had collided together to form a super-continent called Pangea. The fluvial sediments I studied were deposited in a basin, called the Central Iberian Basin, that was formed as Pangea started to break-up. As the continents continued to move away from each other the basin grew larger. Over time it became flooded with a shallow warm sea rich with life that would later become fossils buried amongst limestones and marlstones.

The Central Iberian Basin was one of many that were formed with the break-up of Pangea. Each of them was filled in the same way; firstly, with fluvial or continental sandstone and secondly by marine sediments. This pattern was discovered by the German geologist Friedrich August von Alberti. In 1834 he published a ground breaking paper where he labelled the sandstones as the Buntsandstein, the marine limestones the Muschelkalk and the marlstones the Keuper. The three distinct layers formed a stratigraphic formation that he labelled the Trias, after the Latin for triad. This would eventually give the Triassic period its name.

This wasn’t the end of the story for Spain. The break-up phase of rifting for this part of Pangea ended and the Iberian Plate found itself in the middle of the collision between Africa and Eurasia. Over the last 100 million years Africa and India have moved northwards to collide with Europe and Asia. Mountain belts have formed stretching from the Atlas Mountains in Morocco all the way across to the Himalayas in Nepal, some of which is still carrying on today. For the Buntsandstein and Muschelkalk sediments in Spain this meant being thrust up and forming outcrops in the Iberian Ranges.

The words ‘jumps’ and ‘folded’ in the poem to me describe the action of the layers of rock that have been deposited in a basin suddenly being inverted during a mountain building collision between two continents. Layers of rock are thrusted over each other to accommodate the shortening. If the layers are still warm and malleable, they are structurally deformed into alternating synclines and anticlines. As I read these two verses, I saw the story of my field area being played out to me.

I’ll love you dear

The first two lines of verse three have been recognised to talk about plate tectonics and continental drift. But the theory of plate tectonics wasn’t widely accepted until the 1960s. This poem was written in the mid-1930s. Auden wrote this poem throughout a tumultuous and frustrating time for geologists.

The idea that the continents moved around was written about as early as the 14th Century. When the first world maps drawn by explorers were published many observed that the continents fitted together like jigsaw puzzles. The theory was expanded in 1912 when Alfred Wegner published his theory of continental drift. But there were two problems i) he didn’t have an explanation for the forces that drove the process and ii) Alfred was a meteorologist with a PhD in astronomy. Prominent geologists at the time were adamant that he was wrong. For the next forty years arguments would continue between geologists who would either insist that continents stayed where they were, the ‘fixist’ view or that continents moved around, the ‘drifting’ view. It wasn’t until the mid-Atlantic Ocean ridge was discovered in the 1950s that the theory of plate tectonics became established. Alfred never saw his theory confirmed as he passed away in 1930.

Today we know that plate tectonics exist. Geology students are taught to interpret what they see in front of them with that knowledge in hand. One of the most exciting places to study on the Earth is the East African rift system. It is one of the only places to study the early stages of the break-up of two plates. We can go on field work, observe this happening in real time and study the geological and geomorphological effects of active rifting. The Earth is the only planet in our solar system with active plate tectonics and without them humans would not exist today.

I can only imagine the difficulty that geologists faced in the early 20th Century every time they travelled for field work. Von Alberti was able to recognise the sequence of rocks across Germany in order to mine for salt but he had no idea how these outcrops came to be. To reconcile finding marine fossils that were now thousands of feet up in the air on the side of a mountain. To stand in front of silent cross-bedded sandstones knowing they were deposited in a dynamic, raging river. To comprehend the time-scales and the sheer force required to form the outcrops they studied must have been mind-blowing.

W.H Auden is most famous for being a poet but he was a well-educated man that started university studying biology. His older brother studied earth sciences and went onto to become a prominent Himalayan geologist. I found no evidence that Auden himself studied geology but I like to think that he attended or had access to the debates and arguments of the returning field geologist as they tried to unravel and comprehend the Earth’s processes, including conversations with his brother. In 1928 he lived in Berlin and could have come across the work of von Alberti in regards to the Triassic sediments. To me the lines he wrote in verses three and four are not only the hyperbole of eternal love but an ode to the ground breaking geological discoveries of the time.

And the deep river ran on

The rest of the poem takes a darker turn when all the clocks and the personified Time remind the lovers about the inevitability of death. Time mocks the lovers for their outlandish statements. No matter how many times you confess your love for someone, time is linear, death will occur and love will cease to exist.

(8)'In headaches and in worry Vaguely life leaks away, And Time will have his fancy To-morrow or to-day.

The narrator finishes with the last verse and leaves the story of the lovers with an open ending. Were they scared off by Time or had they rushed off to try and defeat it?

(15)It was late, late in the evening, The lovers they were gone; The clocks had ceased their chiming, And the deep river ran on.

To me the final sentence ends the poem on a slightly more positive note due to the repetition of the word ‘river’. This is not the same river that ‘jumped over the mountain’ but is following the same process as water has done for millions of years when it flows down a hill. The Earth is full of cycles; water…carbon…rock. It is constantly changing, always evolving but still ever present. The Triassic sediments that I studied had been eroded from mountains formed further back in geological time. They themselves now form mountains that are being eroded and being deposited in rivers flowing across Spain today. Maybe in 250 million years another PhD student will be studying those fluvial sediments.

As a geologist I see the beauty of this every time I go away on field work and think there is no better way to convey love. The contrast of geological time scales to express love on a human time scale forces us to think about the fragility of life. This would have been pertinent to Auden at the time of writing the poem. A geologist, Arthur Holmes, published a paper in 1927 stating that the age of the Earth was 3 Billion years old. This was a staggering revelation at the time and completely altered our understanding of the Earth. He would later revise that age to be 4.5 billion years. The average age that a human being lives to is 80 years. Auden is telling us to love now for time is fleeting but don’t fear it when it’s gone. Like the Earth, it hasn’t disappeared, it has simply moved on and taken a new form.


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, 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.

From Another Time by W. H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright © 1940 W. H. Auden, renewed by the Estate of W. H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown, Ltd.

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