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'O What is that Sound' by WH Auden

Revision / prompts to help with this complex and interesting poem

Mr Wood

on 24 November 2015

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Transcript of 'O What is that Sound' by WH Auden

O What is that Sound
by WH Auden
This is the man. Look at the face - it mirrors the complexity and ambiguity of the poem.
Can you give me some easy stuff to know for my exam?
This is a complex poem where even the simplest of ideas can develop a web of meaning. Let's start with the 'form', which is used to convey a sense of innocence:
simple ballad metre - conversational tone
almost childish repetition of words in the second line of each stanza
This combines to create a sense of security at the start of the poem.
By the end, the tone is sinister and worrying.
WHat about the sights and sounds?
It is sometimes said that the senses are the windows to the soul. Look at how we see delight and happiness at the sights and sounds of the soldiers at the start.
By the end, the sights and sounds have changed.
What's so good about that?
This is the final image of the poem, and it carries connotations of rage, power and destruction. It leaves the reader feeling that some unnamed (or unspeakable) cruelty will befall the speaker.
Is there a word for this sort of thing?
Yes - ambiguity.
It means that something is capable of being interpreted in more than one way.
So what's going on?
Auden deliberately leaves out details here - what will happen, why would the soldiers be after speaker A, and why does speaker B betray speaker A?
When you think about it, we know very little about what is going on here.
What else don't we know?
The genders of the speakers (is speaker B calling speaker A "dear" enough to show that B is a man?
What conflict this is. It could be the Spanish Civil War (the poem was published in 1936), but some people think it explores the fear created by the rise of fascism more generally.
Why would Auden leave out details like this? I like poems to have a clear meaning.
That's a fair point. But what does he gain?
either you pin it on one of the possibilities, or
you see that this puts the emphasis on something else
The 'scarlet' of the uniforms could also suggest the other end of the political spectrum - this was also the time of Stalin's red army.
Or it could be the traditional "red coats" of the British army.
Or it could just symbolise blood and death.
What else?
a more truth about how conflict can destroy relationships between even the closest of people, or
it shifts the emphasis on the feelings - why else end with such an image?
There is more to this poem than I have touched on here. Repeated readings will change the meaning for you. Have a think about the following:
Is anything else ambiguous? Look at the description of speaker A kneeling. Why is this interesting?
Speaker A talks mostly in questions. What does this suggest about him / her?
Does speaker A enjoy the feeling of someone else being caught out?
How can you love someone and abandon them?
Full transcript