Dying Embers out now

Dying Embers out now

Sunday 10 March 2013

O What is that Sound

Here is the latest in my series of creepy poems, O What is that Sound by W. H. Auden. It is of course a very well-known war poem, and not 'supernatural' as such; but I find it has a compellingly eerie atmosphere. What do you think?

O What is That Sound
W. H. Auden

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 the 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 the 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.

Powerful, don't you think? I wish I could write with anything approaching that kind of authority. The repetition of words and the number of syllables in each stanza create the feeling of boots marching, getting inexorably closer. The poem's strong rhythm builds the tension almost unbearably.
It's interesting to note that he first two lines of every stanza except the last features the woman speaking, the second voice being the man. However, the voices can be switched, producing a different meaning to the poem; Auden doesn't specify who is speaking what lines.

Here is a link to W.H. Auden reading this poem himself, well worth a listen.


  1. Wow, this poem is fascinating. The question, repetition and rhyme remind of me of old children's poems, but then it is so dark! I love it!

  2. Glad you enjoyed it. A lot of his poetry sounds like one thing, but under the surface is quite another; something I'd like to achieve with my own writing!