'O plunge your hands in water, Plunge them in up to the wrist; Stare, stare in the basin And wonder what you've missed.
The clock-speaker wants us to look at ourselves, to stare at our reflections in the water, and think about the time that has already passed, time we can't get back, and to consider what we have missed out on.
The water in this stanza brings to mind that "brimming river" from stanza 2 and the mention of a river in stanza 3. This water happens to be in a washbasin, but consider the alternative meanings of the word basin (an area of land that is drained by a river, or any depression in the earth that contains water) and it seems Auden wants us to stay connected to the idea and the image of rivers.
'The glacier knocks in the cupboard, The desert sighs in the bed, And the crack in the tea-cup opens A lane to the land of the dead.
Okay, things get a little bit weird in this stanza but don't worry because Shmoop has you covered.
We've heard of people keeping some weird stuff in their cupboards, but this is the first time glaciers have come up. There are two possibilities here: it's super cold in this guy's house, or the clock-speaker is using glacier to represent something else. Shmoop is betting it's the latter.
We've all seen Ice Age, so we know glaciers are giant, super slow moving bodies of ice (there's no way one would fit in a cupboard). Their movement is slow, persistent, and almost imperceptible—kind of like the slow, steady march of Time.
Glaciers are also pretty barren places. You don't want there to be anything glacier-like about your cupboards. You don't want them to be barren you want your cupboards to be full of nourishing food.
Deserts are also barren places. And they certainly don't belong in the bedroom. The bedroom is another place where barren is bad. In addition to meaning no plants, no trees, no fruit, no seed, barren also means being unable to produce children.
So, what is old clock-mouth yammering about? Basically it's like this: Someday, the full cupboards will become bare, and even the most fertile will become barren. The ravages of Time await us all, everywhere we turn, from the kitchen to the bedroom.
Just in case we needed one more reminder of the inevitability of Time's march and ultimate death, Auden gives us the image of a cracked tea cup that "opens a lane to the land of the dead." Great. Just what we needed.
That cracked tea-cup is just one more small sign of what awaits us all. One minute we are whole and useful, the next we are aged and cracked.
Think about that cracked cup for a minute. What happens if you use it? Yup, the tea will drain right out of it. Tea is an ancient beverage often associated with a healthy life, meditative qualities (think Japanese tea ceremonies), and the ability to cure certain ailments. So, that tea leaking out of that cracked cup can be equated symbolically with all those life-supporting elements (or, gulp, even life itself) draining away over time.
Let's go back to that glacier in the cupboard and the desert in the bed. Do these descriptions remind you of anything from earlier in the poem? If you said they are two more examples of mixing the natural and manmade realms then you're correct. Pat yourself on the back and go have a cup of tea. (Use the good cup—you earned it.)
This mixing is there to reinforce the idea that in the natural order, Times dominates all things, and cannot be kept out of our lives. Love can't stop it and neither can a nice house with well-stocked cupboards. The natural order will always win out.
Nature will always break down the door and let herself in and she always travels with that great equalizer, Time. What a punk.
One more thing and then we promise we'll move on. The glacier is knocking and the desert is sighing. Auden is using more personification to give these inanimate things more immediacy.
It turns them into living, breathing (or at least sighing), characters in the poem.
We lied. There's something else. That rhyme between bed and dead. Beds are nice. They are comfy, safe places. They can also be connected with racier endeavors. So it seems especially harsh to rhyme something as pleasant and full of life as bed with dead. Still, as unpleasant as it is, it fits with those themes of Time and Death touching every aspect of life. Beds can be a place for life to begin, and end.
'Where the beggars raffle the banknotes And the Giant is enchanting to Jack, And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer, And Jill goes down on her back.
Things get a little topsy-turvy in this stanza. Auden makes some significant changes to some stories that are probably familiar from your childhood.
For starters, beggars are in charge of the cash and Jack (you know, the guy who bought those magic beans?) isn't scared of the Giant. Then, there's this pure, innocent little boy who becomes a wild child ("a roarer") and Jill (of "Jack and Jill Went Up the Hill" fame) presented in a more grownup, subtly sexualized way. (The expression or idea of a woman "on her back" used to seem pretty racy.)
The bottom line is this: Time has the ability to change everything: poor to rich, enemy to friend, child to adult, innocent to experienced.
Note: That "Lily-white Boy" just happens to show up in the same nursery rhyme as the seven sisters/stars from line 15. Take a look.