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Below is a poem by W. H. Auden called “O Where Are You Going” or “The Three Companions”:

"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.

I have the following questions on this poem:

  1. What does the line “That gap is the grave where the tall return” mean? I presume “tall” means bold or courageous here. Is the place so dangerous that even bold people turn back from there or do the (foolishly) bold die there?
  2. What is “the lacking”?
  3. What does the line “Your footsteps feel from granite to grass” mean?
  4. Why would the bird and mysterious figures be looking for “horror”?
  5. This essay describes the poem as “satirical heroic”. What in the poem suggests satire?
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    This poem sounds an awful lot like the folk song Cutty Wren. I presume thus was a deliberate allusion on the part of Auden.
    – Matt Thrower
    Mar 11, 2023 at 21:54
  • Thank you, Matt! Will look up the song.
    – user392289
    Mar 12, 2023 at 5:20

1 Answer 1

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In turn:

That gap is the grave where the tall return. One of the meanings of gap is a ravine or pass through mountains. The reader says to the rider that the ravine is a grave, one that brave people return to after their life is over. So the reader is warning the rider about the risk of death; if the rider goes to the gap, the rider will face certain death.

The lacking and Your footsteps feel from granite to grass. I do not believe there should be a comma after lacking. My print edition of Auden does not have one. Nor does the comma appear in this selection of Auden's poems by Richard Hoggart, available on archive.org. Sans comma, the last two lines of the stanza mean: "Do you think that your quest will let you find what's missing in your footsteps when you are on grass rather than granite?" Footsteps are, of course, louder and firmer on granite than on grass. The fearer tells the farer that a quest for louder footsteps (i.e., has more impact) will not be successful.

Horror here refers to the fearful person who is trying to dissuade the heroic one (hearer). The fearful person tells the heroic one that danger and/or death are approaching, in the form of a mysterious bird or figure or disease. The heroic one replies that those calamities are here for the fearful one, not for himself. It's of a piece with the rest of the poem, where the heroic person spurns the caution that the fearful ones advise.

Margherita Volpato's essay notes that the form of the poem uses a mediæval technique of alliteration. Beowulf exemplifies this:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas.

Gar / gear; dena / dagum; þeod / þrym; Scyld / Scefing / sceaþena / þreatum; monegum / mægþum / meodosetla. Old English poetry is patterned by alliteration in lines of four stresses each. Auden uses a similar alliterative structure here. "The Three Companions" is in anapæstic tetrameter, and each line has at least one alliteration: reader / rider, fatal / furnaces, midden / madden. Volpato notes the irony of Auden's using a mediæval technique while the poem is about the inevitability of change.

That is to say, the reader, fearer, and horror all try to dissuade the heroic figure from leaving a point of stasis. The use of a bygone mediæval technique illustrates formally this contrast between fixedness and change: Auden uses a superseded form, but he does so to remind us that English poetry has changed over the centuries.

The satire lies, I suppose, in the poem's attitude to the fearful ones. A response of "Out of this house" to the question "Where are you going?" is a non-answer, indicating contempt for the question being asked. So the rider has a satirical attitude to the reader. I personally would not use "satirical" as a way to describe this poem, but I believe that's what Volpato means.

References:

Auden, W H. A Selection: with Notes and a Critical Essay by Richard Hoggart. London: Hutchinson Educational, 1961, reprt. 1964. Accessed from archive.org March 11, 2023.

Volpato, Margherita. "Playing with Fire: The Deceptive Seriousness of Light Verse". Columbia Journal of Literary Criticism 2022. Accessed from c-j-l-c.org March 11, 2023.

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    When darkness overtakes you in the mountains, I think it is the ground that your footsteps might feel is lacking (when you accidentally step off the path into the ravine). Mar 11, 2023 at 21:07
  • In Beowulf line 3, æþelingas and ellen are the alliterating words, because the rule is that all vowels alliterate with each other. Aug 16, 2023 at 13:03

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