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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

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.


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]


67 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

gianfranco zuccolo said...

At 04.38 16/03/00 -0600, you wrote:
>'O What Is That Sound'

In the poem you have proposed today, not only the incremental repetition,
which you remarked, but also the ballad metre (four line stanzas with four
beats in each line, occasionally three in the pair lines), the final
emotional climax, the dialogic structure are reminiscent of several
medieval compositions, (for instance the anonymous poems "Lord Randal" or
"Edward Edward"). To me the choice of this poetic form contributes to
making the theme of the poem universal, so that, the poet suggests that
this experience has been made by numberless people, without modifying its
sense of useless and unmotivated tragedy.

I agree that it is a great poem


lucy kemnitzer said...

This is just a remark on the comment that the poem seems to be about 30s
totalitarianism, which you said you weren't sure about. It certainly
seems to me -- from the little I know about Auden -- that he's writing
about soldiers coming for dissidents. It bothers me, though, because it
seems as if the poem would be stronger if it were stronger: if there was
a sense about the person who is speaking at the end. As it is, the fact
that they're coming for him is just sort of a random event.

viv.williams said...

This poem was actually written in October 1932 and I think is about communism and unstoppable forces as they gather momentum. Although I do agree that it is somewhat to do with deception on the part of the partner who is leaving who I also assumed to be the man.

Joseph Jen said...

I think it is shit

Jamie Crowe said...

While researching info on this poem i came across this page, and i
dont know if my comments are still relevent, and while i agree that
'yes' superficially this poem is about soldiers coming to get the
construct, the voice of the poem, i also belive that Auden is
potraying deception. It is clearly noted that two voices are present
in this poem, and i believe the second to be that of a wife, reasuring
the husband against the ominous images that Auden builds up, the
repetition of the language, and the suspicious calmness present in the
second voice. Also it is noted in that 'No, I promised to love you,
But I must be leaving', the second speaker has an eerily calm
coolness. while this poem may show some sort of image from possibly
france in 1942, under German oppression, the message may be of a more
fundamental nature, of the betrayal of a wife.


In respose to the 'scarlet soldiers', I think that what he is trying to
convey is the fear at this time of a Communist revolution. The content of
this poem makes it Universal, because people all over Europe were fearing a
second world war which many believed would be caused by a worldwide spread of
Communism. In response to 1930s totalitarianism; remember Hitler came to
power in 1933 and there were also many other aggressive political leaders
around who were a threat to International peace, for example Benito
Mussolini. But I don't agree with the person who suggestest this; I do not
believe that Auden had some sort of wacky preminition!

by Harriet, 2003

cmjmarshall said...

given that the poem was written in 1936, at the time of the Spanish
Civil War, and that Auden was of the political left, it seems most
likely that it referred to the rise of fascism; a much greater concern
than communism to the european intelligentsia at the time.
Charles Marshall

Georgia Walters-Helps said...

It's interesting to note that Mr Crow assumes it is the wife reassuring
a husband, not vice versa. Auden makes no suggestion as to which is

Justus Drake said...

Hey Lucy, I found your string in Caesarian and felt similar. Hope you are the same Lucy with Bro David and grew up in El Sobrante. Hope you are well, Justus Drake.

Kate said...

I agree that the poem deals with Auden's fear at the rise of totalitariansim. I am not sure if my interpretation of the poem is even valid, but here it is any way!

The nursery-rhyme tone and the childlike questioning, juxtaposed with the calm, reassuring responses causes the 2nd voice to become a symbol of the authorities of the modern world. The effect of juxtaposition emphasises how overly-complacent and evidently blind to the rising threat those in power are. In this way, the poem becomes an outlet for Auden's anger at the way in which the authorities sat back and allowed totalitarianism to ascend without obstruction. The abandonment of the 1st speaker, representative of the common man, gradually becoming aware of this threat, indicates Auden's deep seated hostility to the political authorities of the world, who he feels offer him (or anyone else for that matter) no security or safety whatsover.

Salvador Oliva said...

Very interesting comments about the poem. I think the poem does not refer necessarily to anything in particular. It has more value if we do not relate it to any precise kind of political force. The fact that different readers can apply it to different things makes te poem greater. It can also be read, for instance, as if the soldiers were merely a personification of death. We see in a good poem the hidden life that lives in the shadowy regions of our mind. Some said "I think it is shit". If it is possible to say that it is beacuse the poem is a mirror. But it is not shit for lots of other people. It's a very beautiful, intelligent and haunting poem.

Philip Corbin said...

The poem is about a woman who has been betrayed by her lover. He lies to her until the very end, when he walks away without any further words as the soldiers break down the door to come for the woman. It is an immensely sad, and brilliant, poem, about deception.

J M said...

I'm not really into poems, but since I'm doing this project at school I came
across this site and decided to leave a little somethin.

The poem indeed is very interesting.
The repititions deffinitely add some punch.
I would just like to add some comments about the eighth stanza.
Based on that stanza, one could say that this poem was about romance as well
as it being political.
It seems to me that there are two people conversing.


O where are you going? Stay with me here!
Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving?

Second person:

No, I promised to love you, dear,
But I must be leaving.

If you look back, the voice of the poem is speaking with the second person,
naming them 'dear.'

Only the scarlet soldiers, dear
Only the sun on their weapons, dear
Perhaps a change in their orders, dear


Also, notice when the second person said "No, I promised to love you, dear,"
there's a coma after you. So it's not saying to love the person dearly.

Alma Gardner said...

Have you seen the film "cold Mountain"? This seems to me to fit perfectly
into that period and that war.The poem has to be a hunted man talking to a
woman-the timbre of the voices, the man's urge to protect the speaker who
while afraid, dare not say how she guesses the man is the prey for whom the
soldiers with burning eyes come hunting.
Alma Gardner

StephFinc said...

having studied the poem for a level, i feel that it shows strong signs of a
ballad metre. the 'o' could be a connotation for the continuence and monotomy
of war.

Georgia WH said...

If possible please remove the comment made by myself at the end of this

Many thanks

Georgia Walters-Helps

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Melanie Eckersley said...

Auden was known for his ability to explore the "private spheres" in the midst of "public chaos". In this sense, he was able to accurately place himself in the shoes of people involved in war, poverty and oppression - at a personal level. Basically like fantastic disaster movies depicted through the eyes of a family, a figure ("The day after tomorrow" springs to mind).

Therefore, 'O What Is That Sound", though a sentiment of the disastrous rise in Fascism, and the Spanish civil war of 1936, focuses on it's effect on two lovers. The first speaker's panic, which can be noted from the increasing repetition of 'why', is contrasted by the calm, almost patronising tone ('dear') of the second speaker. And by the end of the poem, it is clear that the advancement of the 'scarlet soldiers' scare the second speaker to the extent that he/she is willing to leave his/her lover. The second speaker is thus characterised as unlikable through his deception in "leaving" and dire promise to "love" his "dear".

What is most intriguing about the poem, is the way in which Auden has refused to give the speakers names, gender, or any specific characterisation whatsoever - other than personality through dialogue. This could be Auden's way to make the painful desertion in war universal. By not specifying any detail of setting, character or time, the poem could represent anyone at anytime in history.

Anonymous said...

firstly O ....the repetition of words which starts with " O" and "O",secondly the repetition of words like brightly ,their horses so cunning,turning ,this morning ,drumming ,the poet had tried to give rhythm touch and some sort music in it.But that was the great failure of the poet.the poet forceibly making the non-melodius words to be melodious one by repeating.It is just like conversation where the anticipation of couple with fear of war Anxiety,fear of insecurity in the poem is wellpainted.the contemprory issues the life of that era is welldrafted.poet by this poem shows the history and it teaches,touches our heart and brain ,OOOOOOO....this situation should not happen in our life.neglecting all the negative the poem successfully makes us to think a while.Peace and security is need of the hour also

Anonymous said...

It doesn't really matter where the poem is set - the topics of betrayal and fear of oppressive forces are universal. There is also certainly a strong topical representation of how this can cause distrust and betrayal even within families.

However, not that it is particularly important, the clues from the poem ("Down in the valley...the scarlet soldiers") suggest that this is a Jacobite rebel whose wife ("the vows you swore")has betrayed him to the Red Shirts.

Anonymous said...

i think the speakers are the monarchs of britain because the first speaker says, "o is it the parson they want..."
a parson is a member of the anglican clergy and this peom is written in the eighteenth century and also, britain has an anglican church.
so if the soliers arent coming to visit the doctor, parson, or put down a farmers revolt, then they must be after the royals. this is why the husband flees and also the reason the soldiers break into their home.
well i hope i interpreted this correcly
if not, then sorry :)

Anonymous said...

I think the poem is about a sick criminal and his wife. The soldiers may be looking for the man so the wife flees that they don't catch her. The man asks her wife where the soldiers are and where they stop because he is afraid that they are coming for him. At the end of the poem all his hope fades away because the soldiers are at his doorstep. Their eyes are burning because of hatred towards the criminal who is lying in bed inside the house.

Anonymous said...

it occurs during a threat of an innocent girl was found by culprit he went to her home.

Anonymous said...

"a parson is a member of the anglican clergy and this peom is written in the eighteenth century and also, britain has an anglican church."

The poem was written in the 20th century, October 1932 to be precise, although the term 'scarlet soldiers' suggests an earlier period, and this is supported by "sun on their weapons", which would imply swords, rather than the rifles of the early 20th century.

Anonymous said...

An article I read on this poem said that the poem is about "love vs. betrayal... when the first character is left deserted by the second". However, I disagree: I think that the character, who in my mind is the husband, sacrifices himself to the soldiers, in hope that his wife will remain hidden, and the soliders will not raid the house. I think this bacause he affirms that he still loves her before he leaves, plus Auden's poems are all essentially about love at their core... I definitely disagree that he betrays her! Despite his sacrifice, the final stanza is distressing and it would appear that the wife is about to be captured/killed. The question/answer format of the poem is broken; there is no reply from her husband, which breaks the structure and makes the end very impacting and powerful.

Anonymous said...

this poem is about a man who ain't getting enough head from his wife and so he's leaving the bitch

Anonymous said...

I thought weirdos like you usually stayed away from sites like these? (sigh)

Anonymous said...

looooool this poem is actually about how you leave even your lovers just to save your live

Anonymous said...

Can someone give a reason as to why the farmer is referred to as cunning?

Anonymous said...

Because he might be the one who informed the soldiers about the lover.

Anonymous said...

All these bloody leftists!

Anonymous said...

can anyone help with language analysis of this poem? Ta :)

TP12345 said...

Seems obvious to me that he runs away and leaves his "partner" although I can see what the "DECEMBER 12, 2011 4:29 AM" comment means. Auden's poems are about universal love, yes. However they also hint towards the inner evil (probably too strong a word) inside us all and perhaps Auden feels betrayed himself by mankind through his repression as a homosexual.

In relation to the ending- the soldiers are presented as "it" - impersonal. This gives a "monster" image. When their "eyes are burning" - perhaps they could be burning with anger at the man's escape but I think more likely they could be hot with ambition to rape the lady left behind.

Remember, these things happen quite frequently with soldiers who are away from home for long stints of time. I'm sure Auden will have also picked up on this and I like the idea that she's raped as it is a more powerful ending than some suggested. I don't think it needs that Authorial Voice at the end (as mentioned) if you take this view.

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Unknown said...

I first read this poem when I was in grammar school studying the american revolution. I've always interpreted as a vivid depiction of common colonial life under the oppressive rule of the British Crown. I always imagined that the male subject was perhaps a minuteman (perhaps the farmer down the road as well). This would explain the "cunning" description of the farmer. This type of occurance was very common in the British colonies around the globe (even Ulster, well into the 20th century). Such unjust, unwarranted raids were the impetus of the colonial revolt that ultimately shaped the framework of our bill of rights.

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What is the tone of the poem?

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Cahwa said...

remember the poem was written in 1936, in Spanish times
Civil War, and that Auden is from the political left, it seems most
the possibility that it refers to the rise of fascism; much greater attention
from communism to the European intellectuals of the time.
Charles Marshall

Barina Hoppe said...

poem was written in 1936, in Spanish times
Civil War, and that Auden is from the political left, it seems most
the possibility that it refers to the rise of fascism;
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