O What is that Sound Analysis by W.H.Auden

O What is that Sound Analysis: Clearly, this poem has two narrators, one who desperately questions out of fear and a sense of urgency, while the other reassuringly answers and gives hope to the reader – like a dialogue.

It could also be argued that the first speaker is a woman, while the second is a man; they could also be married. This can be proved by the line, “I promised to love you”.

Structure and Form:

The most striking point of the poem is repetition. Combined with the strong metre, the slow and steady rhythm that conveys a sense of a funeral march picks up the pace and reveals a sense of urgency and desperation.

The poem follows an ABAB rhyme scheme, and the rhyming words at the end of every line emphasize the rigid structure of the poem. The “question-and-answer” form of the poem gives it an almost nursery rhyme effect.

The repetition in every stanza shows the repeated occurrence of fear and desperation, while the last line always being short signifies how life too is short – this also adds to the tumbling rhythm of the poem.

Genre and Style:

The poem is a ballad and written in a traditional ballad form with two narrators questioning and answering each other. Written in the interbellum period, the poem talks about war and the sacrifices and rationale changes a person undergoes. One could assume that the poem is set in Europe while the persecution of Jews was taking place by the Nazi party.


The setting in this poem is that of a hillside town, and we can be sure of this as we see the phrase “down in the valley,” and “over the distance”. Also, this town seems to be pretty rural, as described are a “farmyard”, “the road down there,” and “horses”. We know little of the couple’s neighbors; just that nearby live a doctor, pastor, and farmer, who apparently has done something “cunning”.


Firstly, every stanza begins with an “O” – this shows desperation and a fear of the unknown. The “thrills the ear” in the first stanza suggests something exciting; however, the “drumming, drumming” emphasizes a betrayal to come, and a false sense of security.

Every alternate line contradicts itself, and this furthers the image of confusion and panic throughout the poem. The “scarlet” used to describe the soldiers has connotations of blood, a warning or even the Nazis approaching their town.

The second stanza talks about the view from the couple’s window. The “flashing so clear” could refer to gunfire; one could also argue that, depending on one’s outlook, the light represented either Hope or Death.

The Hope is being supported by the man while the woman fears the possibility of Death.

The poem revolves highly around the oppression the civilians are undergoing – the “gear” shows how well-armed the soldiers are, while the reference to “usual manoeuvres” makes the reader wonder whether the narrators are used to such violence, and hence question whether it is a “warning” they hear.

The “wheeling, wheeling” could refer to the word “turning”, and this is significant as this is a turning point in both the narrators’ lives. We see the first direct inference at religious belief with the word “kneeling” – it is proved that even in times of grave despair, people such as the woman turn to God for reassurance.

In the middle of the poem describes the various inhabitants of the town, and no matter whether they are wealthy or not, the Nazis are after anyone who betrays or insults them.

First, we are introduced to the Doctor, and those in the profession are usually wealthy or well-established. Moreover, the fact that the soldiers “stopped for the doctor’s care” shows that he doesn’t mind helping the soldiers, and is true to his profession. Second, we see the parson, again reinforcing the theme of religious belief in the poem.

When the woman says, “Or is it the person they want,” we are convinced that she is aware that someone needs to be taken away. The prevalence of gossip in the community is also furthered when the woman says, “It must be the farmer so cunning, so cunning”- apparently, he has done something despicable and we are not allowed to sympathize with him on the account of being a working-class individual.

Towards the end of the poem, we see how Auden is not very sympathetic to human behavioral instincts.

O What is that Sound Analysis

The woman exclaims, “Were the vows you swore deceiving, deceiving?” We see the betrayal of the man here, who chooses to save himself and sacrifice the other.

It comes as an unprecedented shock to the reader because the repeated usage of the word “dear” by the man throughout the poem was reassuring and believable.

Finally, the last stanza is narrated solely by the woman, after the man abandons her. The use of the word “it’s” symbolizes the soldiers to be a huge monster, much like the unbeatable fascist force.

The imagery of “boots heavy on the floor” is crude, as we imagine a war-time scenario, splashed with blood and bodies were strewn around. The “burning eyes” also is interesting as it could be argued that they symbolize hatred, anger, passion or rage, moreover, it shows more violence to come – this is perhaps the most probable explanation as the poem ends here.
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