Some years ago, I was given a card that quoted the second and third verse of Auden’s poem, ‘As I walked out one evening’. It was wonderful, the idea that someone could be loved until two continents met across the Pacific Ocean. What a romantic notion.
For many of us, when we fall in love we feel outside the ordinary world, a kind of intensity and madness that takes us beyond the limitations of everyday life. Auden illustrates this feeling at the beginning of the poem, The lover says that they will love the other until impossible things come to pass, ‘till the ocean is folded and hung up to dry’, that is they will love the beloved forever.
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 they 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.’
The idea of a never-ending romantic love is a seductive narrative and I believe a pernicious one. This is because it implies that the power of romantic love, i.e. being in love, is enough to overcome the vicissitudes and transitions of human life. But these are inevitable because we live in time and in space.
In order to fall in love we have to avert our eyes from the ordinariness of the other, to believe they’re special and by being loved by them we are too. Time passes and the ordinary person emerges; time passes and what first attracted us is now irritating; time passes and what matters to us has changed and we don’t share the same interests; time passes and our bodies have grown older and less attractive; time passes and we become forgetful, frail and fearful; time passes, perhaps we become ill and eventually we die.
What happens to being in love? Auden’s poem continues with a warning that love cannot overcome time. Time is watching us from the darkness, perhaps occasionally we are aware that our relationship has a time limit, but often ‘In headaches and in worry, Vaguely life leaks away,’. In the poem there are warnings about the lover’s relationship, the glacier knocking in the cupboard, the desert sighing in the bed and the cracks in the teacups.
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 on the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
Couples come to therapy full of regret and resentment and tell me it’s been like this for years. They recognise there were signs that they needed to pay attention to their love and changes in their relationship and these opportunities were missed. I suggest that some of this is because people want what they had at the beginning, I want to it to go back to how it used to be. To recognise change in a relationship can mean mourning the loss of those early feelings of being in love, that intoxicating pinnacle of romance.
Part of the work of couple therapy is to be able to remember and respect those initial feelings and to find a more fluid and changing narrative about romantic love. One that recognises that time passes and we cannot, we just cannot, stay the same.
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.
Apologies for any misinterpretations of Auden’s poem.
Brighton and Hove Psychotherapy is a collective of experienced psychotherapists, psychologists and counsellors working with a range of client groups, including fellow therapists and health professionals. If you would like more information, or an informal discussion please get in touch. Online therapy is available.