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O Where Are You Going by W.H. Auden Analysis

Part of the anthology of unit for English Literature A level, 'O Where Are You Going' is a short poem by Auden  which is attempts to echo throughout time. Below is a complete analysis of the poem mentioning key elements in the form, language and structure.

The poem is a conversational between two people. The reader (being us) asks the 'rider' many questions with fears and tension building up. All questions are answered at the end where the 'rider' runs away leaving us in an attempt to confront our fears. An inspirational read, this poem can be interpreted many different ways (comment below with your interpretations!). Another interpretation is of a mother who is finding it difficult to let her child go. She portrays the world as a place full of fearfulness making child want to stay with the mother. However, the child confronts his fear of the world and leaves his mother at the end. There is no right or wrong answer to interpretation just as long as you can back it up with evidence from the poem!


  • The poem is in ballad form which was a typical form for the 18th-19th century. It is a folk traditional form.
  • A ballad form suggest that the poem has musical lyrics.


  • Just like Auden's 'Miss Gee', OWAYG (O Where Are You Going) uses quatrain rhyming being ABCB.
  • This poem uses pastiche (imitates the work of other people's work). OWAYG is an imitation of 'The Cutty Wren' poem which is a medieval fold song. 
  • The verse stanzas are in quatrains (four lines at a time).
  • The rhythm comes from Ampibrach tentrametre (U / U or stress - un stress - stress). This is old fashioned and is used limericks adding to the archaic quality of the poem. 


The title 'O Where Are You Going' is a deep question and confrontational. It makes the reader think of big questions in life providing universal meanings for each individual.

Stanza One
  • The 'O' is deliberately archaic (old fashion). 
  • Auden writes in an archaic style to make the poem echo throughout time.
  • He addresses us as the 'reader' on the first line. Another character is included being the 'rider'. This is someone who is controlling or it could simply be just a man on a horse (different interpretations).
  • The 'valley' on line 2 could be a valley from the bible providing biblical reference.
  • There is alliteration of 'fatal' and 'furnaces'. The furnaces are again archaic diction.
  • 'midden' on line 3 is an old fashion word for a dung hill (poo pile).
  • The 'odours will madden' means the odours from the dung hill will drive you mad.
  • More alliteration is used with 'gap' and 'grave'.
  • The last line of stanza 1 is foreboding. No matter how tall you are you will still head to the grave.
Stanza Two
  • Mentioning a 'farer' suggests they are going somewhere. Having a 'fearer' suggests he is afraid creating fearfulness. We believe he is afraid of death from what he says below.
  • There is reference to time of day, 'dusk'. With it being the end of day links in with a end of a life (death). Alliteration is used on 'dusk' and 'delay'.
  • The fact that 'dusk will delay' makes clear that they are trying to hold of the day relating back to death: they are trying to prevent and hold off death.
  • As well as alliteration on 'path to the pass', the path could be a gap in the mountains which could be the path you cross when you die. You could then link this back to the valley featured in stanza one.
Stanza Three
  • There is mention to a 'bird' which very symbolic. A bird has many different symbols making the use of a bird in this poem very vague. However, Auden does this on purpose just like he does with the time period.
  • Having a 'horror' now strengthens the fearfulness first developed by the 'fearer'. The poem is developing.
  • There is now a sense of threat, 'Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?'
  • Sibilance is used in the last two lines with examples such as swiftly, softly, spot, skin and shocking. The repeating 's' sound gives the impression that death is creeping up on the reader and the rider with death being disease. 
  • 'The Cutty Wren' was written just after the black death. Stanza 3 may link to this because the symptoms of the black plague were black spots or buboes on the skin, 'The spot on your skin is a shocking disease?'
Stanza Four
  • This stanza has a quick and dramatic quality to it. The voices are flipped where the previous three stanzas have been 'calls'. Stanza four features the answers or response to these 'calls'.
  • There is a sense of paranoia created 'They're looking for you'.
  • The poem finishes with 'As he left him there, as he left him there'. There are many people rushing out of the house leaving somebody behind who is most likely going to have something bad happen to them. He will encounter the threat from stanza three most likely.


  • The poem is in ballad form with suggests musical qualities that this poem should be sung.
  • The structure adopts quatrain stanzas and quatrain ampibrach tentrametre rhyming. This is old fashioned adding to the archaic quality.
  • The whole poem is dilerately archaic and vague (like many of Auden's poems) to help make his ideology echo throughout time and apply to all time periods. 
  • The structure imitates 'The Cutty Wren' poem where there are two voices in the form of a 'call (stanza 1-3) and response (stanza 4)'.
  • The voices are given different names to build tension towards the ending. It helps the poem develop creating fear and paranoia. 
  • The fact we are mentioned as one of the voices 'reader' links us to the poem a lot more providing a clearer perspective (from the 'reader's/fearer's/horror's perspective).
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.

9 comments so far:

  1. a very brief and coprehensive interpretation that,s quite helpful for the learners

    1. It's pretty hardcore to interpret these poem

  2. Well, I suppose it is a conversation between inner man and actual man. Everyone of us has an inner man who always predicts bad fortune for brave acts. If we are brave enough to response his calls fearlessly and step forward, we will leave the inner man behind and proceed valiantly. Hence, it is word war between two voices of every man.
    From. B. Noman

  3. I, personally, believe it's talking about the Holocaust. In the first stanza, it talks about a horrible odor. At one point it mentions that the "spot on your skin is a shocking disease." This refers to the tattoo each concentration camp person got in the camp; the shocking disease being that one is Jewish. Just read it and you'll start to see stuff coming out like this.

  4. It was written in 1931 so highly unlikely it's about the holocaust

  5. As it was explained to me by an old professor of mine, it is a poem about those who are fearful, looking for every excuse to not do something, and those who actually take action in life and venture into the unknown. The suggestion being that those who sit in their homes and quibble about the horrors of the world are often left behind and forgotten as indicated by the final line of the poem.

  6. In which quatation we use in this poem

  7. In which quatation we use in this poem