O What Is That Sound by W.H. Auden

O What Is That Sound by W.H Auden is a tragic poem reminiscing the trauma that many individuals endure during times of war. 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. O What Is That Sound also exposes a deeper message, which is the weak nature of humankind through the relationship of the two voices referred to in the poem. 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. W.H Auden discusses how two people can be so great to each other but when imminent danger is near it is literally every man for themselves. A third theme derived from O What Is That Sound is that things may not be what they seem. The poem is in ballad form and consists of seven stanzas.


O What Is That Sound Analysis

First Stanza

The first quartet 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 us 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.


Second and Third Stanza

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. The third stanza supports this as the first voice is growing desperate, inquiring what they are doing this morning. The second voice remains persistently hopeful, stating that perhaps they are just giving us a warning of attack as if to say surely they are not actually going to launch a real attack


Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Stanza

In the fourth stanza, the first voice realizes that the soldiers are indeed heading towards their area. The first voice kneels down as if to protect themselves. However, the second voice still remains in denial, inquiring why are you kneeling? As if there is no fear of harm at all. The next two stanzas consist of the second individual going through a storm of panic and rapidly questioning the partner. The questions are Auden’s creative way of keeping us informed of the whereabouts of the soldier and they definitely create an air of anxiety and panic, as the soldiers are coming closer; passing the doctor, the Parson and the Farmer.


Seventh and Eighth Stanza

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 them 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 1900’s, 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. The last stanza reveals that the soldiers have broken into their house and that she can now see in their eyes, how they are burning.

Throughout the entire poem, Auden uses the repetition of words to create a feeling of fear and anxiety.

What are they doing this morning this morning?

Over the distance brightly, 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. Throughout the poem the husband is sincere to his wife but 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 actually did love her but as human nature is, when it comes down to saving your life, no one means anything anymore, it all boils down to one thing, saving yourself. O What Is That Sound 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. 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 What is that Sound, 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. Auden selected the title as ‘O What Is That Sound’, A very casual title, but when taken in the context of the poem it is understandable because most people during war time were casually living their daily lives when they were attacked by soldiers and had their lives destroyed forever. As well as this, it is deliberately archiac, which makes it hard for the reader to distinguish when Auden is referring to with this poem about war. From doing this, it provides a universal message towards war that it is not dependent on time but, in fact, produces the same devasting effects regardless of when war takes place.

W.H. Auden has managed to write a tragic poem of violence and suffering without mentioning any physical violence in his poem; O What Is That Sound. 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. Auden uses repetition to instill fear and bring to life the marching of the soldiers. 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, we nearly always choose ourselves.

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  • Avatar David says:

    Vary well.

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