O Where Are You Going

W.H. Auden

‘O Where Are You Going’ by W. H. Auden is a poem in the form of a ballad which predicts the fate humanity suffers due to indecisiveness and not taking action.


W.H. Auden

Nationality: American

W.H. Auden was a celebrated and prolific British-American poet who also wrote essays, reviews, and plays.

Auden predominantly found inspiration in religion, politics, morality, and man's interactions with nature.

‘O Where Are You Going’ by W.H. Auden is a poem in the form of a ballad which predicts the fate humanity suffers due to indecisiveness and not taking action. The poem consists of four stanzas, all of which are quatrains alternating between two voices. There are varying interpretations to whom these voices belong to, but it is most likely a conversation between a man of action and a man who fears going forward in life. Through Archaic diction, Auden gives us a taste of the olden days and brings to our attention that fearing and worrying will only leave you behind while being bold and taking the first step is the only way to succeed in life. ‘O Where Are You Going’ reflects a person going out into the wilderness and being stopped by another individual who fears many trials could occur in his path. Through this scenario, Auden describes how being fearful of change ultimately causes failure. You can read the full poem here.

O Where Are You Going by W.H. Auden


Analysis of O Where Are You Going

First Stanza

“O where are you going?” said reader to rider,
That gap is the grave where the tall return.”

The first stanza begins with a question, which is also the title; ‘O Where Are You Going?’ The question is addressed from reader to rider. Rider clearly refers to someone who is getting ready to leave on a journey, however, It is immediately unclear what is meant by the reader. Only when we read on to the next lines which describe the reader advising the rider against traveling because of the many perils he will face does it become clear that the reader most probably refers to an individual who does not take action immediately, but sits down and does extensive research first. His excessive pondering over the possibilities that could occur makes him paranoid and in turn, he is frightened by every small event that could occur.

The rider must be traveling out to a wild area, with no human regulation, which is why the reader is so frightened that anything can go wrong. The reader warns that the valley is fatal if it were to set on fire, the stench of the midden, or garbage dump, will be unbearable and the unpaved valley is deadly if you lose your footing. The fact that Auden initiate the poem with O brings light to the Archaic, or old fashioned nature he was attempting to cast over the poem. Adding an old fashioned spin to the poem shows us that he wants his words to resonate throughout the ages and that this is not just a physical journey of a rider being prevented by a reader, but rather this is an inner journey. Some people will always be readers and stop you from going forward in life but you must be the rider and ignore their words in order to attain success. Alliteration is used with fatal and furnaces, gap and grave.


Second Stanza

“O do you imagine,” said fearer to farer,
Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?”

The second stanza begins with the reader and rider now being addressed as fearer and farer. This change in names elaborates on their personalities and verifies that a reader does indeed refer to someone who thinks too much before performing an action, for now, he is being referred to as fearer. The rider is now being referred to as farer, once again fortifying that he is going on an actual journey. The reader, or the fearer now warns of how the fall of dusk will cause him delays in his journey as there will be no lighting in the wild. He also warns of how his diligent and respectable lifestyle of having a warm house and washroom etc will change completely and he’ll have to live with the bare minimum. ‘Your footsteps change from granite to grass’, is the line in the poem which makes the nature of the poem obvious. The fear of shifting from granite to grass clearly shows the fear of losing comfort and moving from industrialized areas to areas that are not touched by human beings. Alliteration is used with dusk and dawn, path and pass. This commonality between the two lines allows us to link them together showing the scary nature of the journey.


Third Stanza

“O what was that bird,” said horror to hearer,
The spot on your skin is a shocking disease.”

The third stanza consists of the fearer who is now being addressed as the horror, warning of the creatures the reader (who is now the hearer) will encounter on his journey. The horror describes the creatures as swift, scary beings whose touch will be contaminated with disease. This stanza is actually slightly comical as it exaggerates the fears of the horror. Firstly, the fact that the fearer is now be referred to as horror is comical in the sense that he is being referred to as a horror himself because of how discouraging his words are, and how excessively he fears. This horror of a person is going into hyperbole as he exaggerates how birds can be deadly creatures and how every animal is covered in disease. Sibilance is seen in this stanza with the words; swiftly, softly, spot, skin, shocking. The constant use of the letter ‘s’ brings on a sense of dread for the person reading the poem and extends on the anxiety felt by the fearer.


Fourth Stanza

“Out of this house”—said rider to reader,
As he left them there, as he left them there.

The last stanza is a shift from the questioning and worrying of the reader, to the reply of the rider. The rider clearly shrugs off all the worries of the reader and tells the reader to leave him alone, that the rider never will succeed in life. Right before taking off on his journey the rider states ‘they’re looking for you’ and disappears into his journey. ‘They’re looking for you’, could be the rider scaring the reader further and stating that these creatures he fears are looking for him. He could be trying to make the reader firmer in his anxiety as a punishment for over-thinking. ‘They’re looking for you’ could also refer to the rider reminding the reader of perhaps another danger, the reason why the rider was left in the first place. ‘As he left them there’ is repeated twice, and since this is the only line in the poem that is repeated twice it draws attention to its meaning and shows that this is the main lesson of the story. The fearer, who is now plural because of the word ‘them’ were left behind. All the people who fear and question too much missed out on the chance to get ahead in life, while the rider progressed.

‘O Where Are You Going’ by W.H.Auden is an encouraging poem which reminds us that taking action immediately is the surest route to success. Auden chastises the ideology of sitting and worrying constantly about things you are unaware of. Throughout the poem, he constantly changes the names of the two voices in order to give us a better understanding of their personalities. Auden uses the literary devices of hyperbole, sibilance, and alliteration to emphasize his points.


Form and Themes

‘O Where Are You Going’ is in the form of a ballad with four stanzas, all of which are quatrains. ‘O Where Are You Going’ follows the ABCB rhyme scheme, similar to some of W.H. Auden’s other works. The entire poem is actually an imitation of a popular old folk song ‘The Cutty Wren’, so we can safely say that it is a Pastiche. The themes of the poem are confrontation and succeeding. Auden uses pondering questions and hyperbole to show us that over-thinking will cause you to lose out on new opportunities and literally leave you behind, while others go forward in life.

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Maha Rehman Poetry Expert
Maha has a BSc Honors from the University of Toronto and is an Author and Writer by profession. She loves writing and genuinely idealizes the idea of science and literary art combining together into a liberating force of intellectual enlightenment. You can check out her YA novel 'Sole Silence'.

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