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Unit 7

O What is That Sound

Poetry by W.H. Auden

Audio version of the poem available @ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=my1LRyiUEBI

Post Reading Prezi (great tool to help analyze the poem) @ http://prezi.com/x7ih1frlq_jv/o-what-is-that-sound-by-wh-auden/
Common Core Standards: RL.3 Analyze how characters interact and advance the plot. RL.4 Analyze the cumulative impact of
specific word choices on meaning and tone RL.10 Read and comprehend poems.

French soldiers returning from the Verdun trenches (1916) by Sem.

Essential Question: How can a poem reflect the realities of an era? How can poetry help to capture
and preserve history?

Introduction: What types of sounds, smells, or images capture your attention? At what point does something strange
become more scary or threatening? The poem in this lesson is about people who are alarmed by strange sounds,
smells, and images to the point that they eventually become very frightened when they realize that they are in grave
Making the Connection: Imagine a situation that may cause you to panic. It could be something as dangerous as
getting lost in a foreign country or as mild as forgetting to study for a math quiz. Compose a brief paragraph
explaining your physical and mental reaction.
Poetic Form: The Ballad
Although W.H. Auden was a modern poet, he used a traditional ballad form for O What Is That Sound. A ballad is a
narrative poem that is intended to be sung or recited aloud. Usually, a traditional ballad focuses on a single tragic
event and typically implies more than it tells explicitly. Typically, a ballad includes:
A plot, characters, and setting
Dialogue and repetition
A regular and simple rhyme scheme (such as abb or aabb)
Analyzing the Text: Sound Devices
Poets carefully chose their words, as diction, or word choice, affects a poems meaning, its tone, and the way it
sounds. Sound devices such as repetition and rhyme can create rhythm, mood, and highlight the poets ideas. In O
What Is That Sound, Auden utilizes these sound devices to create suspense, an anxious tone, and meaning:
Rhyme: Similar sounds at the ends of lines (end rhyme) or within lines (internal rhyme)
Repetition: repeated words or phrases (morning, morning)
Assonance: repetition of vowel sounds within words that dont rhyme (only soldiers)
As you read and/or listen to the poem, identify instances of sound devices, and notice how they help craft a feeling of
Skills for Reading: Analyze Speakers

In the poem you are about to read, everything you learn about the story and the characters feelings comes from the
dialogue between the two speakers. While reading, use the reactions of the speakers to imagine what is happening.
Look for changes in either speakers attitude. In a graphic organizer like the one below, keep track of what you are
able to infer about the speakers, including who they are and how they react to the events early and later in the
Speaker #1:________________________
Initial Reaction

Later Reaction

Speaker #2:________________________
Initial Reaction

Later Reaction

About the Author

W.H. Auden (1907 1973)

A native of England, W.H. Auden is one of the greats of 20 th
century poetry. He started his studies intending to focus on
science, but soon recognized his talent for poetry. His early
poems, like O What Is That Sound, attracted both admiration
and controversy. Maybe his most controversial act was moving
to New York in 1939; he ultimately became a U.S. citizen.
Some Englishmen never forgave him for leaving his country on
the eve of World War II.

In his poetry Auden challenged the controversial issues and

ideas that shocked his age such as Marxism, Freudian
psychology, fascism, civil and world wars. When he won the
National Medal for Literature in 1967 he was praised for
illuminating our lives and times with grace, wit, and vitality.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 websites
and New York subway walls exhibited two of his finest poems,
Musee de Beaux Arts and September 1, 1939.
To learn more about Auden visit http://www.audensociety.org/.

Auden in 1939.

Background to the Poem

The mentions to the drums, horses, and the red uniforms of soldiers in O What Is That Sound propose a far-off time, possibly
near the time of the American Revolution. Yet, the poem was composed in the 1930s, a decade that Auden referred to as the
age of anxiety. Terrified by worldwide economic depression and the escalation of fascism in Italy and Germany, regular citizens
felt defenseless to events beyond their control.

In the Trenches (1917) C. R. W. Nevinson

Close Read
O What is That Sound
Poem by W.H. Auden

Close Read
Analyze Visuals: What is the mood created by
this painting? Find the elements of the subject
matter, shape, and color that contribute to the
mood and explain their role in creating mood.

Returning to the Trenches (1914-15) C.R.W. Nevinson

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, morning?
Only their usual manoeuvres, dear,

Sound Devices: Assonance

Reread the highlighted lines aloud or listen to it on
audio. Which of the lines in this stanza contains
assonance? Identify the assonance, and

Or perhaps a warning.
O why have they left the road down there,
Why are they suddenly wheeling, wheeling?
Perhaps a change in their orders, dear,
Why are you kneeling?
O haven't they stopped for the doctor's care,
Haven't they reined their horses, 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.

describe its effect.

Assess Speakers: How do the two speakers feel
about the approaching soldiers? Do they feel the
same way or differently? Explain.
Sound Devices: Slant rhyme
Slant rhyme refers to end rhymes that not exact
as in chair and cheer. Which of these two lines
in this highlighted stanza create slant rhyme?

Ballad: What elements of a ballad can you

identify in this poem?

O it must be the farmer that 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.

Sound Devices: Rhyme and Repetition

Reread the highlighted stanza aloud or listen again
on audio. What words in this stanza are stressed
by rhyme and repetition?

After Reading Questions

Common Core Standards: RL.3 Analyze how characters interact and advance the plot. RL.4 Analyze the cumulative impact of specific word
choices on meaning and tone. RL.10 Read and comprehend poem.


Recall Whom do the speakers see in the distance?

Clarify Which speaker seems more relaxed?
Clarify Read the last stanza of the poem. What happens to the second speaker?
Comprehending Poetry What is occurring in this poem? Describe the actions that take place. Provide
potential reasons for these actions.
5. Analyze Speakers: Review your notes and the chart you completed as your read the poem. Identify the two
speakers in the poem and their relationship. Support your answers by citing details from the poem.
6. Analyze Sound Devices: Reread the entire poem, searching for instances of rhyme, repetition, and assonance.
Create a graphic organizer like the one below to organize and record two examples of each sound device. Which
sound devices is the most effective in communicating a sense of anxiety and drama in the poem? Explain your
Sound Devices
Rhyme (internal or end)

Examples from the Poem

7. Interpret Imagery Reread the lines below from the last stanza of the poem. Make note of the description of
the soldiers and their actions. Based on this imagery, what is your impression of the soldiers? Will they defend
the speakers or attack them? Explain your answer using details from the poem.
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.
8. Evaluate a Ballad In this ballad, one speaker asks a series of questions, and a second speaker provides
answers. How does this pattern of repetitive dialogue affect the level of tension throughout the poem? Explain
your answer.

9. Consider Historical Context Auden wrote this poem in the 1930s. During this decade, several European
countries, including Germany and Italy, were being conquered over by fascist dictators. These dictatorial leaders
maintained total control over every aspect of public and private life and used brute force to crush opposition,
even of ordinary citizens. In what manner does this poem mirror these political realities of the 1930s?
Enduring Understanding: Reread the essential questions. Does this poem help to capture an era of
history in a way that prose cant? How does this poem help you to understand this era of history? Explain your