Poem “O Where Are You Going?” By W.H. Auden

Text

    “O where are you going?” said reader to rider,
    “That valley is fatal where 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.

Explanation

Stanza 1

The query “O Where Are You Going?” serves as both the opening line and the title of the first verse. The query is posed from the rider to the reader. It is instantly unclear what the reader means when they use the term “rider,” even though it plainly refers to someone who is preparing to embark on a journey. It doesn’t become evident until we read the following lines, where the reader warns the rider against traveling due to the numerous dangers he will encounter, that the reader is most likely referring to someone who waits to act and instead takes the time to conduct in-depth research. He gets paranoid from his incessant thinking about what can happen, which makes him afraid of even the little thing.

The reader is terrified that anything can go wrong because the rider must be heading to a wild place with no human regulations. The reader is cautioned that the unpaved valley is dangerous if you lose your footing, that the midden, or rubbish dump, has an intolerable stink, and that the valley is deadly if it were to catch fire. Auden’s use of the letter O to begin the poem sheds insight on the archaic, or outdated, vibe he was going for. The poem’s traditional twist demonstrates his desire for his words to ring true throughout time and that it is an inward trip rather than only a rider’s physical voyage being stopped by a reader. There will always be readers in your life who want to stop you from moving forward, but in order to succeed, you have to be the rider and reject their advice. Alliteration is employed with grave, gap, and furnaces.

Stanza 2

The reader and rider are now referred to as farers and fearers at the start of the second verse. This name change clarifies their personalities and confirms that the reader is, in fact, referring to someone who deliberates over actions before taking them; for the time being, this individual is called a “fearer.” The fact that the rider is now called the “farer” reinforces the idea that he is truly embarking on a journey. Now, the fearer or reader forewarns him that there won’t be any lights in the bush at nightfall, which will cause him to be delayed in his journey. Additionally, he forewarns of how his devout and conscientious lifestyle—which includes having a warm house, a bathroom, etc.—would drastically alter and that he will have to with the bare minimum.

The poem’s opening line, “Your footsteps change from granite to grass,” makes the poem’s theme clear. The dread of losing comfort and relocating from populated places to uninhabited ones is seen in the anxiety of switching from granite to grass. Alliteration is used to describe way and pass, dusk and morning. We are able to connect the two lines thanks to their similarity, which highlights how frightening the voyage is.

Stanza 3

The fearer, now referred to as the horror, warns the reader (now the hearer) of the animals he will meet on his voyage in the third verse. The fear depicts the monsters as nimble, terrifying animals that will spread illness through contact. Because it plays up the terror, this verse is really a little humorous. First of all, it’s funny that the fearer is now called a horror as it implies that he is a monster in and of himself due to the depressing nature of his statements and the extreme degree of his fear.

This nightmare of a human is going into exaggeration, telling us how every animal is afflicted with sickness and how birds may be lethal. This stanza’s use of the phrases rapidly, gently, spot, skin, and frightening illustrates sibilance. The poem instills a sense of dread in the reader and heightens their worry due to the frequent usage of the letter “s.”

Stanza 4

The reader’s inquiring and fretting is replaced in the last verse with the rider’s response. It is evident from the rider’s response to all of the reader’s concerns that he would never achieve in life and that the reader should leave him alone. Before setting off on his quest, the rider says, “They’re looking for you,” and then vanishes. “They’re looking for you,” may be the rider’s way of giving the reader more chills by saying that the animals he fears are after him. He could be attempting to punish the reader for overthinking by making him more adamant in his fear.

“They’re looking for you” might also mean that the rider is alerting the reader to another potential threat—that is, the original reason the rider was abandoned. Since “as he left them there” is the only line in the poem that appears twice, it highlights its significance and demonstrates that this is the story’s primary lesson. They left behind the fearer, who is now plural due to the usage of the term “them.” The rider advanced in life, whereas everyone else who is too afraid or questions things too much lost out on the opportunity to succeed.

Summary

The ballad-style poem “O Where Are You Going” by W.H. Auden predicts the end of mankind due to delay and hesitation. The poem is structured into four stanzas in the form of a quatrain, where two voices alternate. Though the identities of these speakers are open to several interpretations, it is most likely a conversation between a man who takes the initiative and a man who is fearful of going on in life. Auden gives us a look into the past while simultaneously illustrating his thesis that worrying and fearing will only cause you to lag behind and that being bold and taking the initiative is the only way to succeed in life. He does this by employing antiquated terminology.

“O Where Are You Going” tells the story of a guy who is heading into the woods until he is stopped by someone else out of concern that he may face numerous hardships. Auden illustrates how fear of change ultimately leads to failure with this scenario.

 
Stylistic Analysis


This poem serves as a warning about the risks involved in traveling to uncharted region. Aspects of the human mind are represented by the reader, rider, farer, and hearer, who are all battling their own worries and concerns. There is a sense of dread and uncertainty in the poem because of its powerful imagery and ominous tone.
The poem explores existential topics and uses harsh, straightforward language, which are characteristics shared by Auden’s earlier works. It is distinctive, nevertheless, in the way it employs language and concentrates on the characters’ internal conflicts. The poem’s sudden conclusion, which implies that there is no simple way to overcome the obstacles life throws at us, makes a lasting effect. It captures the angst of a world on the verge of conflict, as well as the disillusionment and uncertainty of the day.

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