O What is that Sound Critical Analysis | Stanza by Stanza

O What is that Sound Critical Analysis

Wystan Hugh Auden was the most famous poet in writing poems with the best usage of rhyming schemes and imagery. Critics also called him an anti romantic poet. In most of his poems, he sketched dreadful pictures of the community. World War-II started in year 1939 and ended in year 1945. W. H. Auden wrote most of the poems during World War-II; therefore, elements of horror were there in his poetry as evident from critical analysis of his famous poem “O What is that Sound.”

In this poem, the poet creates a dramatic war atmosphere. Readers cannot only imagine imagery cited in this poem but also hear it. The poem is in the shape of a ballad, which usually contains stanzas of four lines. It should be noted that ballads were written for singing or reciting purposes, hence, it was necessary for the poet to create rhythm in them, which is obviously available in this ballad.

O What is that Sound Critical Analysis

The poet uses technique of irony as a major theme of this poem, which is a representation of difference between appearance and reality. It is not necessary that things are the same as they appear to someone. The poet creates a comparison between apparent as well as deeper reality in this poem. The poem also has a type of duality in it. From the two characters talking with each other, it seems that the poet talks about them; however, the dreadful sounds and imagery of war creates a different atmosphere. Nonetheless, on the whole the poem depicts situations of individuals during war, specifically during World War-II. 


The poem starts with a question. As mentioned earlier, two people are talking to each other. First person, certainly the female one, inquires about the sound that he hears. The poet creates a sound imagery, also called auditory imagery, of “drumming, drumming” whereas the “valley” is a visual imagery. Critical analysis of this stanza of “O What is that Sound” helps readers to believe that it also contains an answer to the question that has been asked by the first person. It ends with the answer “The soldiers coming”. 


It is the continuation of the first stanza, in which too there is a question and then the answer. The person asks about the bright light and the second person answers that it is the reflection of light that is being reflected from weapons of soldiers. In this stanza, the readers are certain that the poet has depicted a war scene. It is the time of war and the poet wants us to imagine the worst things on the minds of individuals at the time of war.


First character of the poem, who is asking questions again and again, seems highly frightening. He asks what the soldiers are trying to do early in the morning. There is also an answer to her question in this stanza, in which the second person says that the soldiers are doing their routine work. 

Critical analysis of Stanza-III of “O What is that sound” reflects the theme of continuous suffering of the humans in those worst days of life. People were used to listening to marching, guns and every other sound related to war. Some were frightened whereas others were used to them. 

There is also another theme in this poem as obvious from critical analysis of stanza-III of “O What is that Sound”. if you pay attention to external things more than the internal ones then you would never feel yourself calm and relaxed. Meaning thereby that ignoring external things and finding goodness internally is the key to everlasting peace just like the second person of the poem. 


In this stanza, the condition of the first person is terrible. W.H. Auden illustrates movement of the soldiers in these lines of the poem where we find them changing their orders. This stanza clears the readers that the second person is consistently trying to sooth the first person while giving her answer of every single question positively. Nevertheless, it also seems to the readers that he is giving fake answers.

Critical Analysis of Stanza-V of “O What is that Sound”

Apparently, in this stanza, the soldiers have passed firstly the doctor, secondly the parson and thirdly the farmer. Soldiers are coming to nearer. Nonetheless, the movements of soldiers creates anxiety in the minds of the first person; however, the anxiety is not because of the soldiers but because of the bad relationship which is near to end.

In addition to the theme of war, there is also another theme in this poem. If we evaluate the poem “O What is that Sound” entirely, then we realize that the poet makes a critical analysis of bond between the husband and wife. Two themes in this poem run side by side. One is the theme of war whereas the second one is the relationship between a male and a female. In war days, everybody preferred life over any relationship. At the end of the poem, the readers realize that the husband leaves his wife and prefers life over relationship as well as over death. 

Stanza-VI and VII

Both these stanzas are interlinked to each other. The soldiers do not stop at the person’s house. As per the statement given by the second person, the soldiers stopped at the farmer’s house. The poet uses soldiers as metaphors to the love and affection of the second person towards the first one. The soldiers mean the love stopped there for a while but ultimately leaves her and abandons her heart. 

The poet skillfully uses two separate themes side by side and makes the readers believe that he is only talking about the war but deep critical analysis of “O What is that Sound” reveals that he talks about the relationship between a husband and wife.


It clears the whole ambiguity of the poem. The second person is breaking up with the first one. She asks him “O where are you going? Stay with me here!”. She forces him to remember the promises that he made once. Promises to love her and not to leave her alone ever but the second person shows helplessness in this regard. He says to her “But I must be leaving”. 


Final stanza of the poem shows the selfish attitude of the second person. At the time when this poem was written, women were dependent on men. Hence, she requests him not to leave her alone but he is no longer loyal to her. It seems that both of them were hiding somewhere. In first lines of the poem, the male person tries to make the second one calm but when the soldiers come near he leaves her and saves his own life. Finally, the poem ends when the soldiers enter the building. It gives a deep message that it is human nature to prefer life over any relationship until and unless a strong reason is not there.

Critical Analysis of Structure and Theme of the “O What is that Sound”

The poem consists of nine stanzas and each stanza consists of four lines. The poet has written this poem in the shape of a ballad and as a ballad it has a rhythm and flow. The poem is a conversation between two persons. There is repetition of certain sounds in each stanza. Further, every stanza contains a question and then the answer. 

The poet uses the technique of irony. In the start of the poem, it seems that the second person consoles the first one but at the end he leaves her, which clearly shows the difference between appearance and reality. 

So far as critical thematic analysis of “O What is that Sound” is concerned, firstly, it is about the war; secondly, it depicts human nature, thirdly, it portrays that selfishness is the worst enemy of any relationship; fourthly, the W.H. Auden suggests change is the law of nature (human nature); fifthly, the poem is also about making a choice and taking decision in hard times.