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.

Form

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.

Structure

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.

Language

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.

Summary

  • 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.

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