“The Watchers” is a short, forty-line poem in eight five-line stanzas reminiscent of the medieval French form known as a cinquain, which used a five-line stanza with a variety of meters and rhyme schemes. It was written in February, 1932, but not published until 1945. The speaker or persona of the poem is an observer who is watching a sleeping world from his window late at night. A yellow clock face and a green pier light eerily illuminate “a new imprudent year” as the night’s silence “buzzes” in the poet’s ear. Except for the clock, the light, and the buzzing silence, the poet is alone in his window; “The lights of near-by families are out.”
The speaker then observes various objects and phenomena in the night, describing them in a manner that invokes a feeling of watchfulness and apprehension. He describes a dormant lilac bush as being “like a conspirator” that “Shams dead upon the lawn.” The “Great Bear/ Hangs as a portent over Helensburgh,” and the “influential quiet twins” (a reference to the Castor and Pollux constellation) “look leniently” upon the sleeping populace.
The scene becomes more ominous when the speaker describes the “keepers of a wild estate” as stocky men carrying guns. On the surface, these keepers are there to ensure the safety of the town’s estates, yet they keep the peace “with a perpetual threat” to any intruder. The unknown intruders are given the characteristics of moles that burrow in the earth, peacocks that transform themselves from plain to proud, and rats possessed of “desperate courage.” The intruders need these characteristics to trick the keepers and escape detection; the reader may well wonder why people would be forced to escape detection in their own world.
The answer comes as the year moves “Deeper towards the summer” and the poet poses the question of what would happen if “the starving visionary” were to see “The carnival within our gates.” Describing the “wild estate” as a carnival suggests a scene of wild riot and unrelenting chaos, and the reader sees that the estate keepers must watch for human intruders who would report on the carnival—the chaos that has taken over the pastoral world where peace and tranquillity should reign. The last two stanzas reinforce this point when the poet implores the estate keepers to use their power: “We need your power still: use it, that none,/ O, from their tables break uncontrollably away.” Fearful of uncontrolled behavior that would bring danger and damage, the poem abruptly ends by depicting the carnival of intruders “Mopping and mowing through the sleepless day.”
“The Watchers” is based on the medieval French cinquain form, which originally had a variety of meters and rhyme schemes. Auden’s rhyme scheme varies from stanza to stanza, and he uses both exact rhyme and slant rhyme effectively. The rhyme scheme of the first stanza is aabbc, for example, and the second stanza rhymes abccd. The rhyme scheme for the third, fourth, and sixth stanzas is aabba. In other stanzas of the poem Auden uses slant rhyme, or near rhyme. Slant rhyme uses assonance (repeated vowel sounds) or consonance (repeated consonant sounds) to produce an end rhyme. For example, in the second stanza the poet creates a slant rhyme with “stir” and “conspirator.” Slant rhyme is also employed in stanzas 2 and 7. Stanza 7 uses consonance to repeat the closing ts sound in “gates” and “streets.”
Beyond such recognizable formal devices as rhyme, Auden imbues the poem with a quality of mysterious ambiguity. The watchers—the “stocky keepers” of the estate—are never clearly defined...
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or described, and in fact the speaker notes that they are not exactly real; they are his thoughts about “forms” he saw in a dream. The watchers, then, these shadowy, unseen forces, may reflect a paranoia within the speaker as much as anything in the outside world. They seem like soldiers or sentries, posted in doorways or atop ridges, yet they also have an aspect of ambushers (“‘Of late/ HereThey lay in wait’”). The precise meaning and boundaries of the “wild estate” itself are also left open to interpretation. The speaker’s attitude toward the watchers is also ambiguous, ambivalent. They keep the peace, but only by being armed with guns and carrying a “perpetual threat.” The speaker is alternately trying to trick them himself and urging them to use their power to keep order. In the last lines they take on a particularly oppressive cast, protecting the status quo against minor transgressions: one person lunging dangerously about a room and another “out wild-/ly spinning like a top in the field.” The first may pose some momentary danger, but the second, although perhaps eccentric, would seem to pose no real threat. As is true in Auden’s other works, the very obtuseness or obscurity of the poem adds to its feeling of indefinable unease and apprehension.