W.H. AUDEN : "O Where are You going?"
"Is there any relation between form of this poem and its content?
"O where are you going?" said reader to rider,
"That valley is fatal when furnaces burn,
Yonder's the midden whose odours will madden,
That gap is the grave where the tall return."
"O do you imagine," said fearer to farer,
"That dusk will delay on your path to the pass,
Your diligent looking discover the lacking
Your footsteps feel from granite to grass?"
"O what was that bird," said horror to hearer,
"Did you see that shape in the twisted trees?
Behind you swiftly the figure comes softly,
The spot on your skin is a shocking disease."
"Out of this house," said rider to reader,
"Yours never will," said farer to fearer,
"They're looking for you," said hearer to horror,
As he left them there, as he left them there.
During his career, W. H. Auden recognized the negative factors of the times in which he lived; he acknowledged the nearing of death wittily and without panic, keeping faith with an ideal of civility and civilization. Critics have termed him "a beacon of light in the darkness he sometimes saw spreading."
W. H. Auden's "O Where are You Going?" is a dialectic poem that examines this darkness that the poet perceives in the hearts and minds of men. The poem's form does befit the content as it is a dialectic, and, as such, the last lines balance the opposing arguments. For instance, the first three stanzas pose the dark response to the ventures of the hopeful while the last stanza answers this pessimisim with faith and "a beacon of light"--"as he left them there, as he left them there."
Thus, the last stanza answers the first three and with the movement of the vowel sounds, the active participant rejects the fears of the passive and leaves. In his movement, he may, in fact, escape while the passive who fearfully remain may become the victims of what they have most feared.
The form of the poem imitates an old English folk song called The Cutty Wren. You can find the lyrics of that song on the internet, as well several performances of it, including one by radical English folk group Chumbawamba.
The Cutty (or 'little') Wren is said to date back to the Peasants Revolt in England in 1381 and is said to have been sung as an anthem against the king and his lords. The first line of The Cutty Wren is " 'O where are you going?' said Milder to Molder". You can see the similarities.
Auden's poem follows the same question and answer structure as The Cutty Wren. Auden would have been aware of this song, as at the time of his writing The Orators ( which this poem is from)as he was very much involved in left-wing politics and The Cutty Wren is a song that was popular with socialists and communists, and indeed has been revived many times, the most modern revival being the Chumbawamba version.