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O What Is That Sound by W.H. Auden Analysis

Here is a complete analysis of the form, language and structure of Auden's poem, 'O What Is That Sound'. Like with many of Auden's poems, the time frame is very vague to help address an universal ideology. Feel free to skip to the parts most relevant to you.


The form of the poem refers to a question, 'what type of poem is it?'.
  • OWITS is a poem about the universality of war through the use of war affecting the lives of the couple in the poem causing them to run away. There is a sense of betrayal too depending on who you choose to be the first voice and second voice.
  • The poem adopts the ballad form. This is a 18th-19th century form which is part of folk tradition. It is a typical form for Auden with many of his other poems using it such as O Where Are You Going
  • The imitation of ballad form is used to reflect upon the subject matter of war: there is no time (obscure time choice).
  • It is recognisably in ballad form due to the consistent four beats (in musical terms) for every line. Each stanza is four lines long.


The structure explores how the material in the poem has been arranged. It describes the shape of the stanzas, sound patters, any musical references and the rhyming patter too.
  • OWITS uses a quatrain rhyming patter of ABAB. This reflects the 'drumming' of the soldiers.
  • Musically, the poem has four beats to every line. This helps to emulate the sound of drums and the marching of the soldiers developing tension the further on into the poem.
  • The rhythm uses tetrameter alternating between iambics (U /) and anapaests (U U /). There are four feet to every line.
  • The main point to notice with the structure is the rhythmic devices used above which emphasise the sound the soldiers are making being marching and drumming. This brings the silent listener closer to the action making us fear for the couple's safety even more.
  • There is a degree of regularity with the syllable count for every stanza. However, there are an erratic number of syllables on every line. For example, stanza one has 10, 9, 8 and 5.
  • The first two lines of every stanza (except the last which is is third person) features the women as the voice. The second voice is the man. However, we later find out that the voices can be switched to produce a different meaning to the poem seeing that Auden deliberately doesn't specify who is speaking what lines. For language analysis, I will refer to voice one as the women and voice two as the man.


The language in a poem describes the effect of individual words and phrases. Below are the main points about the language used in OWITS sound stanza by stanza.

Before I get things rolling, it is important to mention that the 'O' in 'O What Is That Sound' is deliberately archaic. This helps to produce a vague time period as well as other linguistic techniques.

Stanza One

  • The use of the word 'thrills' creates stimulation and fear like a military band.
  • The word 'drumming' is repeated. This is common for the last word of line two for each stanza producing alliteration. As well as this, the repeated 'drumming' is onomatopoeic imitating the sound of the drums bringing the reader even closer to the action. 
  • The man as voice two is attempting to reassure the women. Auden makes clear he is trying to calm her down from the use of alliteration on 'scarlet soldiers' creating a whispering effect. Although the time period is vague, different interpretations of the 'scarlet soldiers' can mean different things. In the 19th century, soldiers commonly wore bright red (scarlet) uniforms so that if they were shot and wounded, the enemy would not be able to tell if they were bleeding or not. On the other hand, having the soldiers being 'scarlet' could also suggest that are red in the face from the consequence of physical exertion. The second option is more believable seeing that Auden does not want to pin down a time frame for this poem.
  • The first stanza creates tension and drama for the arrival of the army.

Stanza Two

  • The parallel construction of of line two is clear with 'brightly' being repeated at the end of the line two for stanza two. This gives a sense of inevitability of the soldiers arriving and reminds us that the soldiers are continually marching closer and closer to the couple.
  • Auden is deliberately vague when describing what weapons the soldiers have, 'weapons'. This generic makes the reader wonder what type of weapons the soldiers have: it could be from a bow and arrow up to a 21st century machine gun - we just don't know.
  • The second voice now describes the army as 'step[ing] lightly'. The marching has now increased in pace providing more fear for the couple.

Stanza Three

  • The second voice reassures the first voice again describing that the army are only doing 'their usual manoeuvres, dear'. 
  • The second voice shows doubt for the first time of their safety, 'Or perhaps a warning'. This provides an idea that the army might be foreign if the couple views them as a threat.

Stanza Four

  • For the army to be 'wheeling, wheeling' makes clear that the army is big and organised. This creates even more tension and juxtaposition between the power of the army through it's description and sound to the helpless couple awaiting their potentially devastating fate.
  • The second voice attempts to reassure again, 'Perhaps a change in their orders, dear'. This is desperate reassurance seeing because he knows they are a threat but he wants his wife to not know in protection of her. This suggests that the second voice may know something about the army and their presence that the first voice doesn't. Here are hints of the first betrayal.
  • Different interpretations of the 'Why are you kneeling?' line can be made. The line itself is ambiguous because it doesn't make clear what she is kneeling for. She could be kneeling to hide herself away from the army. However, she may be kneeling also in a last ditch attempt to pray.

Stanza Five

  • The roles have reversed with this stanza with the first voice seeking for reassurance with positive explanations for the behaviour of the army, 'haven't they stopped for the doctor's care, / Haven't they reined their horses, their horses?' She is clutching at straws.
  • The second voice has now turned doubtful towards the army fending off the positive explanations the first voice said for the arm's behaviour, 'they are none of them wounded, dear'. This removes the interpretation that the soldiers are injured from them being 'scarlet' and injured/bleeding.

The rest of the poem features the second voice leaving the first voice and running away. This makes clear the tension between the couple. The last stanza does not feature any voices but is told in third person, 'O it's broken the lock and splintered the door'. The aggression and power of the army is made clear how they pushed down the door of the house. The poem finishes with 'Their boots are heavy on the floor / And their eyes are burning'. The fate of the first voice is not told in the poem leaving the reader to fill in the ending to this poem with their own imagination. With the tension of the army increasing the further on into the poem, we assume that the army have killed the first voice. 

The ideology of the poem is that war is something that has always been with us (the human race). It makes clear the universality of war that no matter what time period, war stays the same.

The First Voice As The Man

Different interpretations have suggested that the voices are not the women as the first voice but the man as the first voice and the women as the second voice. This provides a different ideology to the poem. Let's retell the story with this change in voices:
  • The man asks what that 'drumming' sound is. The women replies telling him its the soldiers.
  • He is showing concern for the army approaching. The women tries to reassure him.
  • His paranoia for the army is made clearer the further on into the poem. The women is surprisingly calm.
  • The man, when seeing them starting to turn their way, hides himself from the army while the women is still in the open. 
  • At the end, the women leaves the man to be killed by the army. It is clear the army has come to hunt the man down. This illustrates to the reader how the women has betrayed the man's trust, 'Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving?'
Having the first voice as the man makes clear that the man is being hunted. The women may have known this which is why she escapes leaving the fate of the man in the hands of the army. However, it could simply be seen that she didn't want to suffer the same predicted fate her husband was going to get. Therefore, she thought it was better to run away and live than to show loyalty to her husband.


  • The poem is in the form of a ballad.
  • The syllabic structure has consistency although each line has erratic number of syllables.
  • The rhyming pattern is quatrain being ABAB. 
  • The rhythm such as the repeated phrase on line 2 provides anticipation for the army. The rhythm is used to replicate the sound of the drums. 
  • The voices can be viewed either way.
  • The time setting is deliberately archaic and vague to create a universal ideology.
  • We are left to finish the poem's story off encouraging the reader to have afterthought after reading the poem just like 'If I Could Tell You'.
  • The rhythm generally is used to imitate the marching soldiers. Therefore, the longer the poem goes on, the longer the soldiers have been marching and the closer they are to the characters creating panic.
  • There is four feet to every line with a tetrameter of alternating iambics and anapaests. 
  • The narrative is a conversation between the two characters but changes to 3rd person at the end.
Be sure to check out other poems I have analysed on Ask Will Online.

About Will Green

A student in England studying Automotive Engineering with Motorsport, Will created Ask Will Online back in 2010 to help students revise and bloggers make money. You can follow AskWillOnline via @AskWillOnline.

46 comments so far:

  1. Thank you very very much-my poetry exams tomorrow and these notes are exactly what i needed to revise! :)

  2. You are a saviour. Thank you so much, this has helped me with research and revision :)

    1. I'm glad to here. Remember that I have analysed most, if not all, of Auden's and Browning's poems here on Ask Will Online.

    2. Cheers for the detailed analysis Will. Absolutely flawless, except for your note on timeframe where you mention that it could be the 21st century. I believe that Auden deliberately shows the soldiers to have "horses", to give the sense that it is either the First World War or Second World War, as this would have been contextually relevant to the poet. However, this could just be my opinion. :)

    3. I really do not think that horses signify the 2nd WW. On the contrary, I feel that the presence of an army on horses eliminates WW2. Personally I favour the idea that they are King George's men who wore scarlet coats and patrolled the British countryside often hunting down individual in lieu of a police force.

    4. To continue my post about the soldiers being King George's men (dragoons): I'm pretty certain of this and I think they are hunting a smuggler which they often were. All the other characters mentioned are referenced in other poems as being involved in smuggling. The fact that the farmer is referred to as "so cunning" suppports this theory.

  3. Oh my goodness! I love you. You really helped. I have a essay to do on this due by the end of today for my honors class. Thank you so much!

  4. Commendable effort and thanks hot the summary

  5. Very good and extremely helpful.

    The only issue I would raise is that your analysis of the colour 'scarlet' in stanza 1 cannot be correct... They are definitely not injured and bleeding as you suggest. This is evident in stanza 5. One of the voices states: 'Why, they are none of them wounded, dear.' (as the mass of soldiers pass the doctor's surgery). It's definitely a nice idea though! I would perhaps suggest that they are either red in the face as a result of physical exertion, or as you suggest, the uniform.

    Other to that, as I say, a very comprehensive and well written analysis. I am particularly impressed by your knowledge of the structure (iambs and anapaests)!


    1. Thanks for the detailed comment. I have to agree with you on that basis and have since changed that part of the analysis to what you said. I'm being a hypocrite saying that they are bleeding because like you said, further on, the voice states why they are not wounded. I'm glad you brought that point up too: some of the best analysis is interpretation (which I got, this time, wrong).

      The soldiers being red in the face from physical exertion is a more believable reason for describing the soldiers as 'scarlet'. After all, the time frame for this poem is deliberately vague: having the soldiers in red uniform as an interpretation narrows the time period for this poem which is not what Auden wants to achieve.

  6. I always thought about it, every time I read the poem. The man seemed unfazed throughout the whole time the woman was hoping that the soldiers were not here to come to their place. The man was the one who was calm throughout the situation. Maybe the woman was the reason from the beginning itself. The woman kneeling, trying to hide herself, constantly trying to reassure herself that the army of soldiers were in that area for someone else other than her, it could all mean that maybe she was the one in hiding. That could explain her demanding the man to stay with her and questioning him about his vows. The man leaves in fear realizing what he had gotten himself into, and the woman later killed for the crime she seemed to have committed which could have been running away with this man itself. Just a thought.

    1. That's a great interpretation which is something I love about this poem, it is so vague it can have so many different interpretations.

    2. well thought of.. but we can also consider another aspect!
      a disabled woman asking her husband about all that she hears. at the end the man leaves her to fend for herself, literally throwing her into death's arms in order to save himself from these soldiers. just a thought..

    3. It is definately a possibility! Well thought of.

  7. I commented. I don't know where it went. :\

  8. I really do like this analysis . However , I was wondering if you do have any other analysis of other poems by other poets !!?

    1. Have a look at this page :

      It has all the poem I have analysed which include Auden, Browning and Thomas Hardy.

  9. The analysis of the poem is well done, I must say. I like the way you have given a logical explanation for each line. Though I have a slightly different opinion (stanza 4) where you have mentioned that the woman is kneeling. Obviously the line itself is ambiguous because it is not the woman who is kneeling. It is the man, who is trying to hide himself from the 'scarlet' soldiers who are coming for him. And from there onwards, it the man who questions the woman.
    Then again, from the line 'O where are you going?...deceiving?' there is a switch in their roles. It is the woman who is questioning. And finally in the last stanza, it is the woman who is saying those lines (O it's broken...burning.).

  10. "Kneeling"
    It also seems like the one of the voice is kneeling(reflecting human behavior) as last form of request most human would prefer.
    And I really do love your ideas thanks

  11. thank you very for my seminar

  12. Why are the last four lines told in third person?

  13. There is an abundance of a voice (neither the man or women are talking to each other). The only description is of the soldiers marching in.

  14. thankyou so much......... but need an other summary please

  15. Continuing on the idea that these are King George's men chasing smugglers, if you read Kipling's poem Smugglers Song, there are many explicit links.

  16. These notes are absolutely brilliant! Just what I need for my mock tomorrow! :-)

  17. these notes are as help for me also as a person needs water in siarassssssss!!!!!!!!

  18. How is the grammar structure used in the last stanza called?
    "O it's broken the lock and splintered the door"
    Does "it" refer to the soldiers, or is it somekind of a sentence without a subject, or just an inversy (the broken lock, the splintered door)?

  19. Brilliant, excelled my understanding of all the Auden poems I've looked at on here... Not thinking about does James Honeyman or Musee des Beaux Arts are you?

    1. Unless an English A level student is willing to publish their work on here, I'm afraid not. Sorry

  20. Thank you for the help i really need this poem discription ...

  21. Thank you for the help i really need this poem description ...

  22. Thank you very much.. it has helped me a lot...

  23. Assuming the first voice as the man, I dont think that he actually betray her, as he may have left her so as to join the coming army for the battle. As suggested by the idealogy, that war knows no men no women it only brings destruction and separation. It left the innocent beloved couple to suffer who has nothing to do with the conflict between the two nations. And she is not killed.
    At least that's what made from the poems ending. If that's not so, please explain her murder, I don't get it.
    And that was a beautiful description... I've ever read. Thank you, will help in my test.
    But please do tell her murder.

  24. thanks a lot these notes are helpfull in my study

  25. If you know anything about WH Auden you will understand that more likely than not the two speakers are a gay couple -- and in the 1930s that alone could be cause for them to be hunted by the forces of the state.

  26. tnxxx a lot it was very helpful

  27. it was very helpful try to make more notes for students

  28. I need to know what ballad is. In lines 26-28

    1. A poem which tells a story.

  29. you're a legend we need more people like you especially when money isn't invested to give us good English teachers thanks heaps

  30. thank u so much .it helps alot alot and alot again thank u

  31. can you plz define the title of this ballad..thank you sooo much

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