Down in the valley drumming, drumming?
Only the scarlet soldiers, dear,
The soldiers coming.
O what is the 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,
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.
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 game where they're turning, turning,
Their boots are heavy on the floor
And their eyes are burning.
Written in ballad form, this Auden poem catches us readers up in its moment, as soldiers come for one or both of the narrators. Presumably a husband and wife (or wife and husband, as I read it, respectively) are listening to the sounds of soldiers making their way into their town. Throughout the poem, they try to rationalize their fear, to explain these movements and noises. There is a bit of a spat between the two narrators, as one seeks to flee rather than support the other, despite their marriage vows. Fear for self overrode those vows, it seems.
The real strength of this poem is in its driving rhythm. The ballad format of four strong beats per line is familiar to all, but the subject matter here is not the stuff of typical ballads. Instead, we get a real-time narrative which ends with splintering wood and hateful eyed soldiers. Even though we, the readers, hopefully will never be caught in a situation like this, we can relate to the way the narrator seeks to rationalize and explain all of the frightening things occurring, not realizing their inevitable outcome. The poem is not hard to understand, really. It's just remarkable that we can become caught up in the drama of it, as if it was unfolding before us in all its terrible, all too believable reality. Even though soldiers today are unlikely to come charging up the lane on horseback, we see news clips from all over the world of this kind of fearful tragedy playing out in more modern terms.