O What Is That Sound Auden Essay

Transcript of 'O What is that Sound' by WH Auden

O What is that Sound
by WH Auden
This is the man. Look at the face - it mirrors the complexity and ambiguity of the poem.
Listen:
Read
Can you give me some easy stuff to know for my exam?
This is a complex poem where even the simplest of ideas can develop a web of meaning. Let's start with the 'form', which is used to convey a sense of innocence:
simple ballad metre - conversational tone
almost childish repetition of words in the second line of each stanza
This combines to create a sense of security at the start of the poem.
By the end, the tone is sinister and worrying.
WHat about the sights and sounds?
It is sometimes said that the senses are the windows to the soul. Look at how we see delight and happiness at the sights and sounds of the soldiers at the start.
By the end, the sights and sounds have changed.
What's so good about that?
This is the final image of the poem, and it carries connotations of rage, power and destruction. It leaves the reader feeling that some unnamed (or unspeakable) cruelty will befall the speaker.
Is there a word for this sort of thing?
Yes - ambiguity.
It means that something is capable of being interpreted in more than one way.
So what's going on?
Auden deliberately leaves out details here - what will happen, why would the soldiers be after speaker A, and why does speaker B betray speaker A?
When you think about it, we know very little about what is going on here.
What else don't we know?
The genders of the speakers (is speaker B calling speaker A "dear" enough to show that B is a man?
What conflict this is. It could be the Spanish Civil War (the poem was published in 1936), but some people think it explores the fear created by the rise of fascism more generally.
Why would Auden leave out details like this? I like poems to have a clear meaning.
That's a fair point. But what does he gain?
either you pin it on one of the possibilities, or
you see that this puts the emphasis on something else
The 'scarlet' of the uniforms could also suggest the other end of the political spectrum - this was also the time of Stalin's red army.
Or it could be the traditional "red coats" of the British army.
Or it could just symbolise blood and death.
What else?
a more truth about how conflict can destroy relationships between even the closest of people, or
it shifts the emphasis on the feelings - why else end with such an image?
Think
There is more to this poem than I have touched on here. Repeated readings will change the meaning for you. Have a think about the following:
Is anything else ambiguous? Look at the description of speaker A kneeling. Why is this interesting?
Speaker A talks mostly in questions. What does this suggest about him / her?
Does speaker A enjoy the feeling of someone else being caught out?
How can you love someone and abandon them?

Full transcript
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O What Is That Sound -- W H Auden

(Poem #371) O What Is That Sound O what is that sound which so thrills the ear Down in the valley drumming, drumming? Only the scarlet soldiers, dear, The soldiers coming. O what is that light I see flashing so clear Over the distance brightly, brightly? Only the sun on their weapons, dear, As they step lightly. O what are they doing with all that gear, What are they doing this morning, this morning? Only their usual manoeuvres, dear. Or perhaps a warning. O why have they left the road down there, Why are they suddenly wheeling, wheeling? Perhaps a change in their orders, dear. Why are you kneeling? O haven't they stopped for the doctor's care, Haven't they reined their horses, their horses? Why, they are none of them wounded, dear. None of these forces. O is it the parson they want, with white hair, Is it the parson, is it, is it? No, they are passing his gateway, dear, Without a visit. O it must be the farmer who lives so near. It must be the farmer so cunning, so cunning? They have passed the farmyard already, dear, And now they are running. O where are you going? Stay with me here! Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving? No, I promised to love you, dear, But I must be leaving. O it's broken the lock and splintered the door, O it's the gate where they're turning, turning; Their boots are heavy on the floor And their eyes are burning.
-- W H Auden
If I've never run an Auden poem before, it's merely because I've only recently started reading him to any great extent. And I have to agree with Thomas's opinion - he's not always good, but when he's good, he's very good indeed. Today's poem is one of my favourites - the first Auden poem I ever read, and one of the very few that has stuck with me. The most immediately striking thing about the poem is the repetition. Combined with the strong, almost singsong metre, it gives the poem a 'nursery rhyme' effect strongly at variance with the increasingly chilling atmosphere, in a manner that merely reinforces the latter. Seldom has the dissonant interplay of form and content been handled so well or so effectively. Some more on form - as has been remarked before, poetry differs from prose in the extreme care that has to be taken over word choice. This is especially true for the rhymed words, which are thrown into emphasis by the structure of the poem. Now this is not always a restriction that poets feel compelled to follow, but when a word is repeated as well, a careless selection could ruin the poem. Today's poem is crafted beautifully in that respect - in almost every case[1] the repetition works so well as to seem the natural way to phrase things[2] (this also goes a long way towards making the poem memorable). [1] excepting 'this morning, this morning', which makes no sense to me [2] for instance 'is it? is it?' sounds more insistent, 'deceiving, deceiving' more plaintive, 'drumming, drumming' more continuous than they would be unrepeated. As for the background, Seamus Cooney refers to it as 'fear of contemporary 1930s totalitarianism'. I'm not too sure what that refers to - if anyone has any further information do write in. Links: Biography at poem #50 Criticism of Auden at poem #68 And don't miss all the other Auden poems we've run, at [broken link] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet.html m.

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