(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.
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 effectively. 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 the repetition works so well as to seem the natural way to phrase things (this also goes a long way towards making the poem memorable).  excepting 'this morning, this morning', which makes no sense to me  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. Links: 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] http://www.cs.rice.edu/~ssiyer/minstrels/index_poet.html m.