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... and why does she need to go to the end of the world to plunge a penknife into her false heart?

W. H. Auden's poem Lady Weeping at the Crossroads

starts with the stanza

“Lady, weeping at the crossroads
Would you meet your love
In the twilight with his greyhounds,
And the hawk on his glove?

and ends with

Cross the silent empty ballroom,
Doubt and danger past;
Blow the cobwebs from the mirror
See yourself at last.

Put your hand behind the wainscot,
You have done your part;
Find the penknife there and plunge it
Into your false heart.”

I assume that it is making some reference to some mythological or fictional text. What is this reference? And what does the quest that the lady in the poem is told to undertake have to do with her meeting her love?

There are a number of analyses of this poem online, some of them based on Freudian theory (which Auden was indeed interested in), but I haven't found one that I'm really convinced by. My intuition says that the line about meeting her love is important, and none of the analyses I've seen takes this into account.

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  • What research have you done? A quick Google found this. Oct 31, 2023 at 9:02
  • @KateBunting: That analysis doesn't really explain the line Would you meet your love? And another quick Google finds this, which in some aspects seems to contradict the analysis you found.
    – Peter Shor
    Oct 31, 2023 at 11:20
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    It's a quite specific form of suicide. I'm reminded of the nursery rhyme "The man of double deed" which ends: "When my back began to smart, / Twas like a penknife in my heart", but I don't see any connection. Nov 4, 2023 at 21:25
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    @ClaraDiazSanchez I never heard that one before. The one I knew went: "A man of words and not of deeds / Is like a garden full of weeds [...] And when your back begins to smart / It's like an arrow through your heart / And when your heart begins to bleed / You're dead, you're dead, you're dead indeed." I wonder which came first and which is the updated version.
    – user14111
    Nov 26, 2023 at 13:23
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    @KateBunting It is not an expectation on LitSE, or on SE in general, that askers have searched Google before asking questions. As BESW admirably put it: "The Stack Exchange wants to be a place Google sends folks, not a place that sends folks to Google."
    – verbose
    Nov 26, 2023 at 20:38

1 Answer 1

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I have an answer to this question that I suspect will be controversial, but it addresses more aspects of the poem than any I've seen on the web: My answer: the lady weeping at the crossroads is Lord Randal’s true-love.

If my interpretation is correct, there are probably more aspects of the poem that could be explained with this interpretation; feel free to make suggestions about these.

Lord Randal is a traditional English ballad, one version of which runs as follows:

Lord Randal

‘O Where ha you been, Lord Randal, my son?
And where ha you been, my handsome young man?’
‘I ha been at the greenwood; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie down.’

‘An what met ye there, Lord Randal, my son?
An wha met you there, my handsome young man?’
‘O I met wi my true-love; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi huntin, an fain wad lie down.’

‘And what did she give you, Lord Randal, my son?
And what did she give you, my handsome young man?’
‘Eels fried in a pan; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi huntin, and fain wad lie down.’

‘And wha gat your leavins, Lord Randal, my son?
And wha gat your leavins, my handsom young man?’
‘My hawks and my hounds; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi hunting, and fain wad lie down.’

And what becam of them, Lord Randal, my son?
And what becam of them, my handsome young man?’
‘They stretched their legs out an died; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m wearied wi huntin, and fain wad lie down.’

‘O I fear you are poisoned, Lord Randal, my son!
I fear you are poisoned, my handsome young man!’
‘O yes, I am poisoned; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.’

I’m skipping three verses detailing what he leaves to his mother, sister, and brother.

‘What d’ye leave to your true-love, Lord Randal, my son?
What d’ye leave to your true-love, my handsome young man?’
‘I leave her hell and fire; mother, mak my bed soon,
For I’m sick at the heart, and I fain wad lie down.’

The hawks and the hounds in Auden’s poem made me suspect it might be related to Lord Randall, and I have found a few more indications that it might be. I detail them as follows.

Here is Auden’s poem, annotated with possible allusions to Lord Randal.

Lady Weeping at the Crossroads

Lady, weeping at the crossroads,
Would you meet your love.
In the twilight with his greyhounds,
And the hawk on his glove?

You can recognize that her lover is Lord Randal because of his hawk and his hounds.

How can she meet him? He’s dead, and presumably in Heaven. She’s guilty of murder, and in the last verse of the ballad, her lover cursed her to go to Hell. She is not going to get into Heaven unless she can somehow absolve herself from her sin.

Bribe the birds then on the branches,
Bribe them to be dumb,

The tree branches are those in the greenwood, of course. Either the birds are witnesses to the murder, or they are going to give away her hiding place. Either way, she needs to bribe them to be quiet.

Stare the hot sun out of heaven.
That the night may come.

She needs to escape the authorities who are looking for her to arrest her for murder. Traveling in secret is best done at night.



Starless are the nights of travel,
Bleak the winter wind;
Run with terror all before you.
And regret behind.

Terror before her, because the authorities are looking for her. Regret behind her, because she wishes she hadn’t murdered Lord Randal.

Run until you hear the ocean's
Everlasting cry;
Deep though it may be and bitter
You must drink it dry,

Impossible tasks are a common trope in folk tales and folk songs. Here the poet sets her the first of a list of impossible tasks. If these tasks are really impossible, she can never accomplish them, and thus can never be absolved of her sin.

Of course, in many folk tales, the hero or heroine somehow manages to accomplish the impossible. Will she? The poem doesn't say.

Wear out patience in the lowest
Dungeons of the sea,
Searching through the stranded shipwrecks
For the golden key,

Another impossible task. Were these impossible tasks chosen by Auden because they have some symbolic meaning, or just because she needs the key to get into the room with the mirror? If anybody has suggestions about what their symbolic meaning might be, I'd love to hear them.

Note the word "dungeons" — this word is associated with punishment.

Push on to the world's end, pay the
Dread guard with a kiss,
Cross the rotten bridge that totters
Over the abyss.

The “world’s end” may be indicative of the end of her life. She’s certainly not in Scotland anymore.

There stands the deserted castle
Ready to explore;
Enter, climb the marble staircase,
Open the locked door.

The deserted castle might be her psyche. And this is presumably why she needed to find the key.

Cross the silent empty ballroom,
Doubt and danger past;
Blow the cobwebs from the mirror
See yourself at last.

Before she can get absolution for her sin, she has to see herself as she truly is. This mirror lets her do that.

Put your hand behind the wainscot,
You have done your part;
Find the penknife there and plunge it
Into your false heart.

So, now that she has done the impossible tasks, does committing suicide in this way get her to Heaven? We can't really tell. Most likely, since the tasks are impossible, she will never get to this stage and will be doomed to go to Hell.

And it should be clear why her heart is "false".

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  • +1: I think a response to another poem is a good idea and you make a good case. Bob Dylan was inspired by Lord Randall to write A Hard Rains Gonna Fall - a very different kind of response. Jan 11 at 9:25

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