Please explain Auden's poem "O Where Are You Going?"

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davmor1973 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In life, there are those who act and those who sit back and observe. Both archetypes are present in "Oh, Where Are You Going?" The passive character, the "reader," tries to dissuade the active "rider" from exploring the world outside. There are so many things he will hate about it. The valley is full of factories spewing out foul-smelling smoke; it's a grave-like gap from which even the strong cannot return; and nightfall will delay his journey. So really, this character argues, there's no point in the setting out in the first place. The world outside is a big old dangerous place, full of darkness and suffering. It's better not to venture out at all.

But the reader cannot persuade the rider of the folly of his ambitious quest. So he starts getting desperate, making the world outside seem even scarier by resorting to childish superstition. At this point, the "reader" has now become "the horror," and draws attention to a strange, bird-like shape in the trees. Who knows what that weird apparition could possibly be? And, even worse, there's a creepy stranger just behind him on his journey. He won't see him, but he's there all the same. Oh, and for good measure, that spot on the rider's body definitely looks like a symptom of a deadly disease. The would-be valiant explorer is cursed.

But the rider turns the tables on his nagging antagonist. It is the reader, the horror, the fearer who should be scared, not the traveller. He's the one who's going to be spending the rest of his miserable life in fear, and all because he lacks the courage to break out from his comfort zone and explore the world outside. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Like one of his mentors, Thomas Hardy, w. H. Auden felt that suffering was an integral part of life,

"Suffering was integral to God's love and the forgiveness of sins."

Like the active person of his poem, Auden did not stop in his search for human and divine love.  In his poem "O Where Are You Going?" there is a dialectic between the active and the passive personalities.  These contrasts are felt by the sound of the poem which has cosonant sounds working against vowel sounds:  "diligent/discover," "granite/grass," "skin/shocking," etc.

The contrast, too, is between the active and the passive.  In the first stanza, for instance, the passive reader asks the title question to the active rider; in the next stanza, it is the passive fearer to the active farer; and the passive horror to the active hearer.

Auden's art has been described as that of stripper of deception, a disenchanter who recognized the negative factors of his times.  In this poem, the poet points to the pollution caused by furnaces, perhaps steel mills since he grew up in Brimiingham, England, and metaphorically, the darkness that resides in the hearts of men.  The third stanza points to the effect that this pollution has upon animal and man alike:  the bird is twisted, the man's skin is a "shocking disease." Nevertheless, the active participant in the dialectic leaves and the horror is left alone. In his movement, the hearer may, in fact, escape while the passive who fearfully remain may become the victims of what they have most feared.

genisam | Student