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The Two -- W H Auden

Guest poem submitted by Vikram Doctor:
(Poem #427) The Two
 You are the town and we are the clock.
 We are the guardians of the gate in the rock
 The Two
 On your left and on your right
 In the day and in the night,
 We are watching you.

 Wiser not to ask just what has occurred
 To them who disobeyed our word;
 To those
 We were the whirlpool, we were the reef,
 We were the formal nightmare, grief
 And the unlucky rose.

 Climb up the crane, learn the sailor's words
 When the ships from the islands laden with birds
 Come in
 Tell your stories of fishing and other men's wives:
 The expansive moments of constricted lives
 In the lighted inn.

 But do not imagine we do not know
 Nor that what you hide with such care won't show
 At a glance
 Nothing is done, nothing is said,
 But don't make the mistake of believing us dead:
 I shouldn't dance.

 We're afraid in that case you'll have a fall.
 We've been watching you over the garden wall
 For hours.
 The sky is darkening like a stain
 Something is going to fall like rain
 And it won't be flowers.

 When the green field comes off like a lid
 Revealing what was much better hid:
 Unpleasant.
 And look, behind you without a sound
 The woods have come and are standing round
 In deadly crescent.

 The bolt is sliding in its groove,
 Outside the window is the black remov-
 ers van.
 And now with sudden swift emergence
 Comes the women in dark glasses and the humpbacked surgeons
 And the scissor man.

 This might happen any day
 So be careful what you say
 Or do.
 Be clean, be tidy, oil the lock,
 Trim the garden, wind the clock,
 Remember the Two.
-- W H Auden
from 'The Dog Beneath The Skin'.

The other Auden poems we've had so far show his lyrical side or his questioning
intelligence. But this poem has another aspect of Auden's - the ability to
create a picture of nightmarish fear, of being hunted and pursued, of having
'them' after you. Not for nothing is Auden the dominant poet of the Thirties,
the worst, most frightening and disturbed decade of our century. The Depression,
the rise of fascism and other tyrannies, all the cowardices and compromises of
what he called 'a low dishonest decade', it all seeps into Auden's verse, and
what he does with it is unforgettable.

It can be pointed, as in the picture of refugees he paints in 'Refugee Blues'
("Say this city has ten million souls,/ Some are living in mansions, some are
living in holes:? Yet there's no place for us, my dear, yet there's no place for
us.") or just general and hallucinatory, as in "The Orators" ("Oh where are you
going?" said reader to rider, "That valley is fatal where furnaces burn,/
Yonder's the midden whose odours will madden,/ That gap is the grave where the
tall return."), but its always uniquely frightening.

This poem in particular is straight out of those nightmares we've all had where
we feel that under the normality of things, is something always looking at us,
waiting to pounce if we step out of line for a moment. We all know the pressures
of conformity, to be normal, not to be different, and the veiled threat of what
might happen if we dare to be different... out comes the scissor man.

Vikram

20 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Celine said...

This gets to you. The two could be the devil and the angel which sit in the mans shoulders ("on your left and on your right"). Or just his own demons. Like this (very) short story:

Down on the hard, wet, sand, a man raced past, disappearing into the night fog. Their eyes followed him, then turned to watch for his pursuer.

"Just his own demons, I guess."

"Got any yourself ?"

"Just you sweetie."

"He'll run out of beach...or breath."

"Or, hopefully, demons."

"I guess it's always a race"

By Ross Parsons.

Isnt that a good story. Obviously its not by me. I'm not Ross Parsons.

Felix Ortiz said...

Actually, I'd suggest that this is in fact further than simply a 'nightmarish story', but if you look carefully it is an allusion to the story of Jesus' temptation in the desert, brought forward into the modern world, and therefore a modern parable about the struggle between good and evil.

Celine is right, it is almost literally referring to the two demons on your shoulder, but Auden's (and much of the political poets of the Thirties) close relationship with the work of Sigmund Freud suggests that these demons could well refer to the psychic split between the unconscious and conscious. It is the reason for the creation of the nightmare scene, bringing us to Frued's work on interpreting dreams, which he suggested are often representations of unconscious desires kept in check by the conscious mind. If you want to go even further, you could also suggest that this choice of subject and its timing have a political leaning, in it's emphasis on the individual, as C.Day Lewis once wrote 'Freud...is the real champion of liberalism today.'

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