O What is That Sound: by Auden - Summary and Analysis

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      O What is That Sound was first published in New Verse in December 1934, and later formed a part of the Collected Shorter Poems, 1950. With all traditional elements of the genre, it is a ballad. The situation of the poem is dramatic and the theme timeless. The central figures around whom the drama of the ballad revolves are two lovers, a girl and a boy. The young man is a rebel to whom his political creed is more important than love.

      The setting of the poem is a village which is represented merely by a few landmarks - the doctor's the parson's and the farmer's house. The marching soldiers who look otherwise peaceful move up to the locked room where the lovers are confined and break its lock and door as the rebel-lover flees.

      The poem uses the question and answer pattern that occurs so frequently in the ballads, and presents a situation of balad-like drama and simplicity.

      The poem has a lot of psychological content. We find that we are inside the myth world, looking around. No commentator from outside tells us what we are looking at or its significance. The poem is a well-known example of the popular style. It is a much compelling ballad. The poem has a music of its own; the folk-song style upon which it is based was of course developed tor singing to a fixed accompaniment and the convention of being written for singing to such accompaniment is essential to the style of this poem.

O What is That Sound was first published in New Verse December 1934, and later formed a part of the Collected Shorter Poems, 1950. With all traditional elements of the genre it is a ballad. The situation of the poem is dramatic and the theme timeless.
O What is That Sound


      In the first stanza, the situation is that a soldier intends going to war, but he is persuaded by his beloved to stay with her. The whole poem is in the form of dialogue between the soldier and the beloved. The soldier hears the sound of the military land and asks his beloved to what is that sound of "drumming down in the valley, which so thrills his ears? His beloved puts him off by saying that there are only a few soldiers dressed in the scarlet uniform.

      The soldier then wants to know the flashing light being seen by him from a distance. The beloved replies that it is the sun shining on their swords, while the soldiers are doing march practice.

      The soldier-lover then asks as to what those soldiers are doing with their armor this morning. The beloved makes her to understand that it is their usual practice, or perhaps a warning to the enemy.

      The soldier then wants to know as to why have they left that road down there, and the beloved tries to satisfy him by saying that perhaps they have been ordered to go that way. Then the soldier bends a little to see them from a distance.

      The soldier-lover sees the marching soldiers stopping near the doctor's house, and asks his beloved as to why have they reined their horses there? The girl says that none of the soldiers is wounded, and there is nothing serious.

      Then the soldiers are seen stopping by the parson's house. But the beloved says that they are just passing his gateway.

      In the seventh stanza, the soldier again sees them stopping by the farmer's house, and wants to know its reason. The beloved again replies that they have passed the farmyard and are running.

      In this stanza, it is said that the soldler-lover can no longer ha stopped by his beloved. He must join other soldiers. The girl wants him to stay with her, and when she finds that she cannot stop him, she charges him with being false in his promises to love her. The soldier points out that he did promise to love her, but not at the cost of his public duty. So he is duty bound and ready to leave her.

      The soldier is tempted to go to war. Nothing can stop him now. He is bound to perform his public duty. So he feels an urge to join his regiment and marches on to some unknown frontier.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      The most important element of Auden's poem O, What is that Sound is the portrayal and rendering of an emotionally charged situation. To quote Dennis Davison: The ballad "presents a dramatic situation without comments, by means of question and answer dialogue between a woman and a man who forsakes her - a standard situation of the old-folk ballads. The language and the reference to soldier, doctor and farmer seems carefully chosen to be practically timeless."

      W. H. Auden presents a situation which is tense, full of suspense and loaded with implications which enlarge its significance beyond the radius of the immediate theme of the poem. On the surface level, the theme is betrayal of love, violence and patriotism. But the other segment of the poem points to a political expediency in the face of which such values as love and faithfulness are abandoned. The poet seems to hola his moral judgment in abeyance on the lover's act of desperation, as he has attributed a motive to the lover, although the motive is not explained and merely hinted at:

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.

      The lover actually is not obvious in his promises of love, but he feels he has a reason to love. The lover is placed in a situation where he has to make a choice between his love and the cause which he exposes. So, his betrayal is considered and calculated, based on his beliefs although this view is contrary to that of John Fuller. The theme is the stock theme of the old ballads. The first speaker is the lady, the beloved, who is afraid that her soldier-lover would leave her at the sight of the scarlet soldiers. Her fears are conveyed by the intensity and urgency of her repetitions at the end of the second line of each stanza 'drumming, drumming,' 'Brightly; Brightly', 'Wheeling Wheeling', 'cunning, curring'.

      According to John Fuller, "O what is that sound is a much-anthologized and compelling ballad whose point lies in one's presumption that the eighteenth-century soldiery was as likely as not to be the instruments of repression, and that, therefore, the second speaker of the poem is an honest rebel for whom the cause of continued resistance is more important even than the girl he loves. The rebel's Scale of values is not approved by Auden, however, and the poem is thus an important political comment appropriate to his developing emphasis on love and individual values. The contemporary application is obvious, and the poem's success is built upon the way this application lurks teasingly within the simple musicality and accumulating menace of the poem.

      Besides the theme of surface level, the another implication is the menace of violence present, in all ages. Causes might differ from age to age but the marching and thumping soldiers epitomize the forces or violence and oppression to which peaceful people like the lovers are even exposed.

      Main element in the poem, is the building up of the situation and the focus, of the poem is on the emotional state of the lovers.

      The diction of the poem is simple. The anapaestic beat in the poem harmonizes with the marching of the soldiers. The repetition of the last word in the second line of each stanza underlines the sense of urgency in the central situation of the poem.


      Auden's ballad O What is that Sound presents us with the quintessence of betrayal and violence. And the presentation is as simple as a medieval ballad.

The last two stanzas form a powerful and terrifying climax:
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 are turning turning;

      With its emotionally charged situation which is tense, suspenseful and loaded with implications, the poem is no doubt an amazing achievement.

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