Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Watchers” is a poem about contradictions, about the appearances of things and their realities. Auden contrasts pastoral images—the lilac tree, constellations, the seasons—with mechanical images, such as the yellow clock face, the green pier light, the estate keepers’ guns, and the carnival, which intrude upon nature’s peacefulness. Mechanical images are characteristic of Auden’s poetry and identify him as a member of a 1930’s group of young, liberal poets called the Pylon School; this group also included Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, all of whom used mechanical images.
As a pastoral, the poem describes a rustic setting, including the estate keepers and references to a copse, a bridge, and animals. However, because Auden wants to depict contradictions, the images take on extra meaning. The opening stanzas show the opposition of the quiet night to the intrusion of the light and the clock face, both of which are mechanical objects that impart contrived sequences upon nature—the glowing clock measures artificial hours, and the light artificially lights the darkness.
An estate keeper’s job is to maintain the land, yet these keepers carry guns, mechanical objects that can inflict injury and death. Because nature is pastoral, and because Castor and Pollux, the “influential quiet twins,” are looking “leniently upon all of us tonight,” the intrusive keepers are particularly jarring to the scene. Although the person at the window and the constellations looking down are watchers, the estate keepers are the most significant watchers in the poem, and their guarding is not reassuring but threatening, even dangerous.
Through images containing contradictory meanings, Auden presents worlds in conflict with each other. One is natural and filled with pastoral images, while the other includes humans who come as intruders to subvert pastoral nature into a violent and mechanical environment. Humankind, intruding upon nature, is watched in its watching, a situation that lends irony to the poem. “The Watchers” reflects the uncertainty of England and Europe in the 1930’s, with fascism on the rise.