Four Movements in the Scale of Two by Owen Sheers follows the path of a relationship over four distinct stages, from the beginning to the end. The poem uses metaphors of music to draw a contrast with their relationship, initially highlighting the harmonic beauty of their paring, and finally elevating the inability to continue. The poem deals with love, or the lack of, relationships, and connection.
The poem is divided into four parts: ‘Pages’, ‘Still Life’, ‘Eastern Promise’ and ‘Line Break’. The parts each focus on an element of their relationship. The first deals with the promise of what is to come. The second, a portrait of their close connection. The third details the moment of them breaking up. The final part explores the aftermath, with Owen Sheers reflecting back on what could have gone wrong.
Each part is written in a different style, yet all have close imagistic connections throughout. The first part is written is tercets, a favourite form of Owen Sheers, who also wrote the poem Trees, stemming from the connection to his Welsh identity. The second part is written is couplets, perhaps signalling the close relationship between the couple. The third part continues in this form, yet its use is opposing, instead elevating the disconnection between the couple through its interlinking lines. Finally, the fourth part is disrupted, the initial standalone line signalling the new Sheers, alone once again. You can read the full poem here.
Four Movements in the Scale of Two Analysis
Part One, Stanzas 1-4
The first focal point of the first line falls upon ‘us’, Sheers using the pronoun to connect the couple, initiating ideas of their relationship.
Throughout these two stanzas, Sheers focuses on images of beginning, signalling ideas of starting afresh and anew. The first of these is ‘early morning’, with the idea of ‘morning’ signalling the start of a new day. This is a mechanism to symbolise the beginning of their relationship, the new day becoming a form of new beginnings. Yet, this image could be understood as a slightly sinister foreshadow, the homonym ‘mourning’ also perhaps signalling the coming end of their relationship.
Sheers continues ideas of new beginning, pulling on these semantics from words like ‘foetus’, ‘naked’ and ‘early’. All of these words bare the connotations of something starting, Sheers elevating the beginning of his relationship of something that has incredible promise. Even the title of this part, ‘Pages’, suggests that Sheers can write on the pages, their history spreading out onwards from this moment. This is reiterated in stanza four, with ‘blank pages’ compounding the idea within Four Movements in the Scale of Two.
The elegance of this early stage in their relationship, which many call ‘The Honeymoon Stage’ is evident through the connection with musical symphony. The second stanza of Four Movements in the Scale of Two elevates this concept, focusing on ‘bass cliffs’ and ‘cello’, drawing upon musical imagery to present the beauty harmony between the two new lovers. The flourishing ‘butterfly’s wings’ compounds this sense of beauty, the excitement of a new start flooding through Sheers’ writing.
The connection between the couple is furthered by ‘double heart’, the idea of them fused together in their newfound love palpable through Sheers’ writing. This stanza is about the promise of the future, and the excitement a new relationship brings.
Part Two, Stanzas 5-10
Although they are presented in a harmonic light within this part of Four Movements in the Scale of Two, there is an element of disconnection between the couple. Whereas in the first stanza they are presented through the singular ‘us’, they have drifted within this part to ‘you’ and ‘I’. This could symbolise the falling away of their connection, perhaps the first stanza idealism finally being grounded into a more realistic image of love and relationships.
An interesting idea Sheers explores within this stanza is the opposing power dynamic through his relationship. Indeed, commonly for Sheers and elsewhere in his Skirrid Hill collection, the poet presents women as passive and men as active. Yet, here this is reversed, the woman active, ‘you paint’, while Sheers, ‘I sit’, is stagnant. Sheers could be revealing something about the dynamic within his relationship, with the poet exploring more balanced relationships instead of a more typical patriarchal relationship presented elsewhere in the anthology.
Yet, this part of the poem still focuses on the connection between the couple, their love has not yet faded or become stagnant. Sheers uses synaesthesia to blend the senses of sight and touch, creating a multi-sensory poem which encapsulates the beauty of their relationship. This segment of the poem explores ‘touch’, the woman moving her fingers slowly along his body. The sensation and sight this evokes captivates Sheers, with his writing of ‘textures’ and ‘impressions’ elevating the intimacy of her touch. This segment of the poem explores an intimate moment between the couple, still focusing on the happier, earlier, side of their relationship.
Part Three, Stanzas 11-14
It is within this part of Four Movements in the Scale of Two that Sheers’ relationship comes to an end, focusing on the moment of break. The eleventh stanza begins with an ominous ‘dark’, projecting that which is to come through the suggestion of sadness or bleakness in the colour.
The hyphen caesura on the second line of the eleventh stanza, ‘said- and she’, is a representation of the break in their relationship. Following the command ‘speak’, Sheers receives the words from his lover that the relationship is over. The broken connection between the couple manifested through Sheers’ use of punctuation.
The coldness which follows this, ‘drawing’ from the ‘deep’ and ‘summoning’ the ’Siberian snow to their bed’ compounds this sense of sorrow. Their intimate place, focused on in the second part of the poem, ‘their bed’, has been invaded by cold. Their relationship has collapsed in on itself, they are no longer in love and the acknowledging of this by Sheers forces the poet into shock. The setting is uncomfortable, the environment brutal and lacking beauty, Sheers is thrown by her statement, but understands it as truth.
The power of their break up stems from Sheers’ manipulation of sound within deliver. By writing ‘her cracked their consonants over her tongue’, Sheers focuses on the brutality of the consonance of ‘c’, the harsh sound permeating the sentence. Not only is the meaning of what she is saying hurting the poet, but the very language she uses hurts him, the harshness of sound unpleasant to the reader. Furthermore, the idea of ‘cracking’ ‘consonants’ elicits the idea of cracking ice, further projecting the uncomfortable cold atmosphere Sheers evokes in this part.
This part summarises the ‘shock’ Sheers faces when his lover proposes her want to breakup, focusing on his heartbreak and the horrible moment of realisation.
Part Four, Stanzas 15-18
The sole line which begins this segment is a symbol to represent the now alone Sheers within Four Movements in the Scale of Two. He has been broken up with, and he is now isolated and looking back over his relationship, looking for clues to where everything went wrong. ‘What breaks’ is a perfect summary for the helplessness that Sheers feels, he doesn’t know what has happened, what has broken inside him.
The main image of this stanza is the slow spiralling blood, pooling up from a cut underwater. Indeed, when you cut your hand in water, you don’t initially feel it, and Sheers uses this metaphor to show how things can go wrong without anyone noticing. The ‘slow smoke signal of blood’ is a pertinent image to represent this, the ’signal’ going undetected, representing how Sheers didn’t realise his relationship was coming to its end. The end of the poem is incredibly unsettling, and shows a mastery of Sheers’ craft, the delicate image perfectly summarising the intended feeling of a ‘slow’, yet certain destruction of their relationship.
This part focuses on Sheers looking back, much like his Keyways in which he cannot quite pinpoint where things went wrong. Again, Sheers is left alone, the isolation he feels palpable through his uncertain and delicate imagery.