June 2, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

O What Is That Sound[1]
By: W. H. Auden (1934)[2]

O what is that sound which so thrills the ear
Down in the valley drumming, drumming?
Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,
The soldiers coming.[3]

O what is that light I see flashing so clear 5
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, morning? 10
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, 15
Why are you kneeling?

O haven’t they stopped for the doctor’s care,
Haven't they reined their horses, horses?
Why, they are none of them wounded, dear,
None of these forces. 20

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 that lives so near. 25
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? 30
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 35
And their eyes are burning.


  1. The poem was first published in 1936, marking it as a piece from Auden’s early career, before he migrated to the United States in 1939. His work from this era often dealt with socio-political themes, reflecting the tumultuous climate of the time, including the rise of fascism and the looming threat of war.
         “O What Is That Sound” is no exception. It presents a narrative of fear and betrayal, in which an idyllic pastoral scene is suddenly disrupted by the approach of marching soldiers. The poem can be read as a commentary on the encroachment of war and its devastating effects on ordinary lives, showing how quickly a sense of security can be shattered.
         Two major themes dominate the poem: fear and betrayal. The fear is represented by the relentless advance of the soldiers, whose march instills terror in the poem’s speakers. The theme of betrayal is introduced near the end, when one speaker abandons the other in their moment of need. This not only heightens the sense of danger, but also reflects on the human capacity for selfishness and cowardice when faced with threat.
  2. Auden, W. H. (1936). Look, Stranger!. New York: Random House.
  3. The structure of the poem, a series of eight rhymed quatrain stanzas, enhances the narrative flow and the build-up of tension. Auden’s choice of a simple, almost song-like rhythm belies the poem’s grim subject matter, creating a stark contrast that heightens the sense of unease.