O What Is That Sound

Revision notes for Auden's "O What Is That Sound"

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Ao2: Narrative Technique
Ao3: Ideas behind poetry
Ao4: Context:
O What Is That Sound?
Summary: Two unnamed people discuss the movements of a group of soldiers,
wondering where they are heading. Eventually, it becomes clear that the soldiers are
making for the place where the two people are, and they are about to break down the
door. The second speaker, by this time, made his escape.
A ballad. The ballad form was used for stories that could often be set to music.
Folk songs and poems often employed the form.
It usually features verses of four lines with lines two and four rhyming.
It would be in iambic metre (unstressed/stressed) with four stresses in lines
one and three, and three stresses in lines two and four.
Offers images of warfare and some images of romantic intimacy.
It deals with the sense of threat felt by those who live in a war zone.
It deals with a sense of impending doom.
It deals with thwarted hopes and self-deception.
Auden claimed that the poem was inspired by a painting of Christ being
approached by soldiers.
Framed as a kind of conversation.
The action is seen through the eyes of uncertain witnesses.
There are many questions in the poem.
Gradually, the layers of self-deception and hope are eroded as the sense of
threat grows to a climax.
Links to other poems:
Like "Ode" if offers an image of warfare.
Like "O Where Are You Going?" it operates around a series of questions and
Like "September 1st 1939" it offers a bleak view of life.
Like "Miss Gee" it seems to relish in delivering bad news.
Aspects of Narrative:

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There is a story here, which develops through a series of thwarted hopes.
It operates around the misunderstandings of two witnesses.
It ends with a sense of violence.
We begin to understand the characters in different ways as the story
progresses.…read more

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Stanza 8:
Increasing panic is reflected in short sentence length
Verse form broken up (rhythmically) by caesura
Stanza 9:
Dynamic verbs of violence
Symbolic of shattered life of people in war
Sense of aggression, ferocity, tension of war
"boots are heavy" links to the last line of the 2nd stanza
Ao3: Ideas behind poetry:
Stanza 1:
Sound of the glory of war?
Threatening, angry
Complacency of word events to structurally emphasise how complacent he is
(with it only being at the start of the line)…read more


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