W.H. Auden

The Witnesses by W.H. Auden

The poet, in the poem, ‘The Witnesses,’ or ‘The Two,’ says that inside a man’s body, there are two vital forces; the first one is Libido (i.e. the sexual impulse) and the Id (i.e. the sum total of instinctive impulses of the individual). The poet says that both the forces stand witness to the actions and reactions of the human heart as the seat of feelings, passions, and understanding. They also communicate their impulse to the heart, from time to time.

Thus, they are the guardian-angles of the heart. Since they do nothing and say nothing as agents of creation and destruction, they are the witnesses in the human body. In the present poem, they are the speakers and convey Auden’s psychological message to the reader. Hence the title of the poem is ‘The Witnesses’, and it is truly needless to say that it is not an appropriate one to the last degree.

 The Witnesses by W.H. Auden


The Witnesses (The Two) Analysis

You are the town and we are the clock.


To them who disobeyed our word;

The speaker in this extract of the poem, which can be read in full here, tells the reader that the young persons who repress their sexual impulses and their Id suffer from the violent mental commotion. Being unable to sleep they change sides on their beds even during the late hours of the night. Their cushions do not comfort their disquieted minds. The harm that decides the nature of their health takes place in the near future. Even if a person has to depart from the natural course of Libido or Id because of some reasonable cause, he will have to face the danger of a serious disease and to experience the gloom of the actual state of illness.

To those


The expansive moments of constricted lives

In the above lines, the reader asks the speaker whether he is one of such young people. The speaker replies that he should look into his own heart to see whether he has ever buried his Libido and his Id over there. The answer to his question lies in the state of his heart. The speaker here means that if his heart is ruled by “cowardice, inability to cope, inertia, the longing for death, frustration”, etc., he has repressed his sexual impulses and his Life-force. The speaker adds that the heart is like a cunning conjuror or a dancer. So, it may often deceive him with a good number of singular artful tricks. Yet its motives may, at last, be found out like stowaways.

In the lighted inn.


For hours.

In this part of the poem, the reader asks the speaker as to what shall be the condition of the person who intentionally chooses to repress his life-forces, and thus to depart from the course of nature. The speaker replies that such a person’s heart shall continually suffer from the violent mental commotion. He shall be self-absorbed in hungry life’s journey. And he shall walk between the unnecessary risk of contracting serious diseases and the state of financial and social safety which is endless ad aimless, considered from the point of view of Nature.

The sky is darkening like a stain,


In deadly crescent.

Where in the preceding lines of the poem, the speaker says that a sexual experience is healthful to the human mind, in the present passage; he qualifies his statement, adding that only legitimate sexual experience is healthful. But an illegitimate one sows the mind with the evil seeds which grow into the form of evil woods soon. He says that when the greenery of an illegitimate sexual experience is taken off by Nature, as if it were lid, the mental surface below has an unpleasant sight.

The seeds of evil sown by an immoral sexual experience have grown up into the evil woods silently and without the lewd man’s knowledge. Nay, they stand around the lewd person’s soul in the form of a lethal crescent sword. The speaker here implies that the evil effect of an illegitimate sexual experience is oppressive and leads the soul to have another illegitimate sexual experience, and so on.

The bolt is sliding in its groove,


And the scissors man.

In this part of the poem, the poet says that the modern man is, however, sliding into the groove of immorality or sexual impulse-repression. The result is that outside the house of his lewd or sexually starved life, there stands the van of secret death. And every moment an immoral, or Id-repressor, victim of Black Death is brought to hospital. Yet in spite of all the efforts of the hospital staff, he (the one who has illegitimate sexual intercourse) succumbs to his fatal diseases. With a sudden and swift movement, there enters the operation theatre the female nurses, the surgeons of manual operations, and Death as the Scissor Man. The speaker implies that the treatment of surgeons only hastens his death. And ultimately he dies.

This might happen any day


Remember the Two.

As we know that in the poem, the speaker is the Libido or the Id. The speech is addressed to the reader. The Libido is the sexual impulse, and the Id is the Life-force in man. Where, in the preceding stanzas of the poem, the speaker tells the reader that the persons, who repress the impulses of their Libido or Id, or satisfy their impulses illegitimately, become victims of deadly mental and physical diseases. However, in this concluding section of the poem, the speaker warns the reader that this might happen to him, too, if he dishonors the impulses of his inner vital forces.

Then the speaker advises the reader to be morally clean in his thoughts and tidy in his moral behavior. He should also have a legitimate sexual experience in response to the call of the Libido. Besides, he should also remove all the evil plants from the garden of his mind. He should invigorate his heart with moral force. What is more, he should always remember the two vital forces of his body and mind, called the Libido and the Id. Needless to say, he should honor and obey them within the ambit of morality.

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Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.
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