O What Is That Sound Poem Summary

Please analyze W.H. Auden's poem, "O what is that sound that so thrills the ear", also known as "The Quarry."

Please pay special attention to how it relates to the concept of the "Romantic lie."

(The romantic lie meaning the way the Romantic poets tended to idealize everything and totally ignore the gritty truth.)

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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W.H. Auden's poem "O what is that sound that so thrills the ear" speaks to the Romantic lie as the first seven stanzas avoid the sense that the soldiers the speaker sees are harbingers of death for someone. The speaker treats their presence as something special, for the sounds they make and the beautiful sights they provide.

In the first stanza, the drums "thrill the ear," as if it is music they hear instead of the beat of the drills the regiment steps to in unison. The second stanza romanticizes the flash of light, as if it were the sun or a shining trinket; it is really the weapons they carry, deliverers of death. The third stanza treats the marching men as soldiers carrying out the mundane, daily ritual of practice: without intent. There is no threat as the speaker sees them: just routine...except for the inference presented in the word "warning," which is ignored.

The fourth stanza is where the action of the poem pivots. The soldiers have changed their direction. The speaker wonders if they have had a change in orders. The only suggestion of danger is the figure now kneeling at the speaker's side: to pray? To aim a gun?

In the next stanza, the speaker wonders if the soldiers are not stopping at the doctor's home, though none of them are wounded. The suspense starts to build here. The mention of the doctor's house and "wounding" might be seen as foreshadowing. And still, the speaker thinks nothing of it; believing that all is well, he continues to observe as if the coming army means nothing to him. The next stanza mentions the parson. Once again, the inference may be that the parson's services will be needed for those who are about to die: another instance of foreshadowing, perhaps, but still the speaker is unmoved.

The energy and movement of the poem changes in the seventh stanza. As the soldiers move ever closer, the speaker hints that maybe they are after someone: the cunning or sly farmer, except that they pass the farmer's house and now are running. At this point, the speaker seems to finally pick up on the impending danger as the running army draws quickly closer.

The fact that the poem is also called "The Quarry" has more significance now. First the speaker notes that his wife is leaving him, and he reminds her of her vows: but he suddenly is (too late) aware that he also must be leaving, regardless of the vows he spoke of moments before. Or...is the speaker a woman, speaking all along to her husband, seeing the beauty in the drumming and the flash of light on weapons as something beautiful, learning at the last minute that perhaps her husband is the quarry?

Finally, the soldiers' intent is clear in the splintering wood of the door, the broken lock, passage through the gate, and their booted heels heavy on the floor, with savage intent burning in their eyes.

Regardless of who the speaker is, the idea of the Romantic lie can be seen in the lack of concern for the movement of this approaching army, sure they look for others and not the speaker or his/her company. The reality, of course, is that any army represents the power to control or destroy. The speaker acts as if nothing could happen because it is a beautiful day, and reality comes along quickly toward the end, leaving the reader to wonder why it took so long for the speaker to notice the soldiers' true intent, and what happens with the breaking of the door.


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