W.H. Auden’s poem, ‘O What Is That Sound’ captures the reader in style and through the use of rhyme scheme and imagery creates a fearful environment, allowing the reader to live in the shoes of those hiding out helplessly in fear when their country is at war. This poem also exposes a deeper message, which is the weak nature of humankind through the relationship of the two voices referred to in the poem. Besides, the poem is in the ballad form and expresses the point of view of two voices which are more than likely a husband and wife hiding out in their house at a time of war. The main theme of the poem is that things may not be what they seem.
Explore O What Is That Sound
W.H. Auden has managed to write a tragic poem of violence and suffering without mentioning any physical violence. The ballad discusses the conversation of a husband and wife, most likely looking out of their window as they follow the progression of an army marching from far, all the way to their house. This poem begins with the wife inquiring about the marching of the soldiers which “so thrills the ear” and concludes with her scared for her life as the army is so close now she can see their boots and their eyes burning with rage.
You can read the full poem here.
Auden selected the title as ‘O What Is That Sound’. It is a very casual title, but when taken in the context of the poem it is understandable because most people during wartime were casually living their daily lives. When they were attacked by soldiers, they had their lives destroyed forever. As well as this, the title is deliberately archaic, which makes it hard for the reader to distinguish when Auden is referring to this poem about war. By doing this, it provides a universal message towards the war that it is not dependent on time but produces the same devastating effects regardless of when war takes place.
The poem is in ballad form and consists of seven stanzas. Being a ballad, each stanza consists of four rhyming lines. In each quatrain (four-line stanza), the poet uses a conventional rhyme scheme. It is not that of a typical ballad stanza. Here, the poet uses the ABAB rhyme scheme instead of the ABCB rhyme scheme. The latter rhyme scheme is used in conventional ballad form. Apart from that, the lines rhyme alternatively and capture two voices. Along with that, the poet uses repetitions and internal rhyming for maintaining the flow and rhythm of the poem. Besides, the overall poem is composed in iambic pentameter, iambic tetrameter, and iambic dimeter alternatively. There are also some metrical variations in this poem.
Throughout the entire poem, ‘O What Is That Sound’ Auden uses the repetition of words to create a feeling of fear and anxiety. For instance, the lines, “What are they doing this morning this morning?/ Over the distance brightly, brightly?” contain the repetition of “morning” and “brightly”. This beautiful repetition not only creates anxiety but also consistently reminds the reader that the soldiers are marching throughout the poem as the repetition sounds rhythmic just as marching does. Moreover, the poet uses apostrophe at the beginning of each stanza. One can find the use of alliteration in “scarlet soldiers.” There are several rhetorical questions or interrogations in every stanza.
Thereafter, one can find the use of irony in the lines, “Perhaps a change in their orders, dear,/ None of these forces.” There is a palilogy in the line, “Is it the parson, is it, is it?” In the last two stanzas, Auden uses sarcasm and irony as well. Moreover, the poet uses a metaphor in the last line, “And their eyes are burning.”
The poem, ‘O What Is That Sound’ gives the reader a first-hand experience of how something may seem like another thing from far but when examined closely it is entirely different. This phenomenon of “things may not be what they seem,” occurs twice in the poem, first with the ‘thrilling’ sound being the dreaded sound of soldiers marching, and secondly with the marriage. The husband and wife spoke to each other endearingly throughout the poem so it seemed like there was much love between the two, however towards the end of the poem the husband leaves her once again reaffirming that things are not necessarily what they appear to be. In literature, this theme is also known as “appearance vs reality.”
Towards the end of the poem, the husband deserts his wife out of fear of the soldiers and this exemplifies the second most important theme, apart from the war that Auden is addressing, which is the concept of human nature. Two individuals can love one another, but when it comes to life or death situations, a person nearly always chooses himself or herself.
Analysis of O What Is That Sound
O what is that sound which so thrills the ear
The soldiers coming.
The first quatrain of ‘O What Is That Sound’ reveals that the poem consists of two individuals conversing with each other. The first voice inquires about a sound that is “drumming, drumming” and the second voice replies very casually that it is just the soldiers. The fact that the reply is very casual tells readers that these individuals have been in a state of war for quite some time and it is now the norm for them.
However, hearing the soldiers “drumming, drumming” is a rather new phenomenon. Auden uses the repetition of the word “drumming” to craft an image of marching soldiers. The soldiers are described as “scarlet”. This could be a direct reference to their faces, flushed with the task of marching for long periods, or rather it could refer to the uniform that the soldiers carry.
O what is that light I see flashing so clear
As they step lightly.
The second quartet is another question posed by the first voice, this time it becomes clear that the second voice is trying to calm the first voice by taking the situation very easily. The second voice says that what it sees are just the weapons of the soldiers reflecting sunlight as they tread lightly. It is clear from the first stanza that the soldiers are not treading lightly, they are marching loudly. This stanza brings to light the fearful state the two individuals are in.
O what are they doing with all that gear,
Or perhaps a warning.
The third stanza of ‘O What Is That Sound’ supports the fact that the first voice is in a state of fear. Therefore, the first voice is growing desperate, inquiring what the soldiers are doing this morning. The second voice remains persistently hopeful, stating that perhaps they are just giving them a warning of attack as if to say surely they are not going to launch a real attack. In this way, the second assures his companion that there is no imminent danger approaching them or their house. She can remain calm without thinking much about the external sounds.
O why have they left the road down there,
Why are you kneeling?
In the fourth stanza, the first voice realizes that the soldiers are indeed heading towards their area. She observes their movements. As they have left the road, she asks her partner why they are doing so. Therefore, the first voice kneels as if to protect herself. However, the second voice remains in denial, inquiring why she is kneeling. As if there is no fear of harm at all. From this stanza, it becomes clear that the second voice or the husband is somehow trying to deceive his wife by giving her fake assurances. The following stanzas illustrate this fact clearly.
O haven’t they stopped for the doctor’s care,
None of these forces.
The following stanzas consist of the first individual going through a storm of panic and rapidly questioning the partner. The questions are Auden’s creative way of keeping readers informed of the whereabouts of the soldier and they create an air of anxiety and panic, as the soldiers are coming closer; passing the doctor, the Parson, and the Farmer.
However, in the fifth stanza, the wife asks her husband whether the soldiers have stopped for the doctor’s care. She can see they have reined their horses. But, she cannot believe her eyes. Within no time, the soldiers will be there at their place. For this reason, she wants some assurance from her husband regarding the fact. Therefore, the husband replies that none of them are wounded. None of the forces are there. So she can feel relaxed.
O is it the parson they want, with white hair,
Without a visit.
In the sixth stanza of ‘O What Is That Sound’, the wife sees the soldiers are waiting in front of the parson’s house. She thinks they want him for some reason. Hence she asks her husband what they are doing in front of the parson’s house. Hearing her, the husband negates the fact. According to him, they are just passing the parson’s gateway. They have not visited his house. Reading this section, it seems that the soldiers have visited his house. They might have taken him with them. The husband has seen those events. But he does not wish to tell anything about it to his wife.
O it must be the farmer that lives so near.
And now they are running.
Thereafter, the wife thinks that if the soldiers have not visited the parson’s house, they might be going to visit the farmer’s house. The farmer’s house is nearby to that of the parson’s. Moreover, she thinks as the farmer is a cunning fellow, he might have already left. Again, the second voice, that of the husband’s, starts lying. He says they have visited the farmer’s house. Without saying anything further, he says the soldiers are pacing up. He does not make anything clear to his wife. Nothing is clear concerning their destination or the cause of running.
O where are you going? Stay with me here!
But I must be leaving.
The final two stanzas are truly tragic as they reveal that it was indeed a couple that was hiding out in their house. The second voice inquires as to why the first voice is leaving her and running out of the house. The second voice questions about the vows that the first voice had made to love her forever.
These vows are most likely referring to the vows made during wedding ceremonies. The role of the voices is still unclear, which one is the husband and which one is the wife, but looking at how the poem was written in the 1900s, women were not very bold and were known for being timid so we can assume the first voice is the wife and the second voice, the voice that has now left is the voice of the husband.
O it’s broken the lock and splintered the door,
And their eyes are burning.
The last stanza of ‘O What Is That Sound’ reveals that the soldiers have broken into their house and that she can now see in their eyes, how they are burning. Throughout the poem, the husband is sincere to his wife. However, when the soldiers start running towards their house he deserts her. The fact that he responds to her “I do love you but I must leave now,” shows that he did love her but as human nature is, when it comes down to saving one’s own life, no one means anything anymore, it all boils down to one thing, saving oneself. So at the end of this poem, readers can find the wife marooned by her husband facing the ultimate. The poet keeps this stanza open-ended, leaving the thread to the readers for further anticipation.
‘O What Is That Sound’ was published in Auden’s poetry collection, “Look, Stranger!” in 1936. This book contains political odes, love poems, comic songs, meditative lyrics, and a variety of intellectually intense verse. Auden, not being happy with the title given by the publisher, changed it to “On This Island” in 1937. This book of poetry includes some famous poems such as ‘Hearing of harvests’, ‘Out on the lawn, I lie in bed’, ‘O what is that sound’, ‘Look, stranger, on this island now’ and ‘Our hunting fathers’. Auden’s poem ‘O What Is That Sound’ deals with some important themes that are important concerning the historical context. At that time, the world was facing the ravages of war. During this tremulous situation, what the commoners thought, how they had reacted, and such other deep questions are present in this poem.
Here is a list of a few poems that contain similar kinds of themes present in Auden’s poem, ‘O What Is That Sound’.
- Hearing the Battle.—July 21, 1861, by Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt – This poem describes a speaker’s curiosity regarding the happenings of a distant battle.
- And There Was a Great Calm by Thomas Hardy – It’s one of the best poems of Thomas Hardy. Here, Hardy describes the horrors of the world wars and the end of those wars.
- Apologia Pro Poemate Meo by Wilfred Owen – This poem is about soldiers. It describes the liveliness of the soldiers and how they become insensible towards humanity.
- Foreword by Robert Service – This poem contains the poet’s World War I experience and the subject matter of this poem is gloomy like the situation of war.