O Children

Both music and poetry say so much while saying so little. In reality, the only big difference between the two is that song is put over instrumentals, while poetry’s rhythm comes from strategic breaks in lines. Poetry is made to elicit an emotional response from the reader, to allow them to feel for the speaker and the situation they encounter. Similarly many songs, but certainly not all, pull emotion from the listener by connecting their own experience to the vague yet telling lyrics.  

Similar to both song and poetry, Harry Potter immerses you into its world, I first found O Children by Nick Cave and the Bad seeds when it was in the soundtrack of the last Harry Potter movie. However, It has become a song in my regular rotation and extends much more insight and meaning than just a song from a movie track.

“O Children” is a song that could be debated to tell the story of Jewish people during the Holocaust. It follows those at the camp as they watch their friends get sent off to the gas chambers and in the end, the narrator does too. This disgusting time is portrayed in an elaborate but simple way because the lyricist never explicitly explains that this is what this song is about, you must dive into the lyrics to best understand the premise of the song

The cleaners are coming one by one

They are knocking now upon your door

You don’t even want to let them start

They measure the room, they know the score. 

They’re mopping up the butcher’s floor

Of your broken little hearts

In the following excerpt, it can be seen that the song only eludes to the subject but will not spell out the meaning behind the words. A few examples of this are shown above, “cleaners” are the Nazis supposedly cleansing the population, going from house to house to “measure the room”, they look for secret rooms or hiding spots. This same metaphorical language continues throughout the song. 

Another reason this piece by Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds is poetic is that its vague, interpretable language and word choice creates a picture and makes the listener imaginative. The lyrical choice and background music work together to effectively create a heavy and ominous feel to the entire piece. The diction is displayed best in the following lines with “dim”  and “weeping.

We’re older now, the light is dim

We’re all weeping now, weeping because

There ain’t nothing we can do to protect you

Like any good poem, this can be interpreted in different ways, it could be deemed to have nothing to do with the Holocaust but rather that it’s about the lyricist’s view on the detriment of generations and recovery. However, I believe that this is the clearest interpretation where the explanation does not contradict other parts of the song. By the end, the artists illustrate the speaker being sent off to the gas chambers by train, while this is a devastating end, it has a happier light to it than the rest of the song. The speaker is content with death, they are able to meet up with those who were lost before them and finally be free of the Nazi’s hold.  

Separate from the interpretation of the song, I would like to talk about the deliberate choice of the song in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows. In the film, there was a war that draws many parallels to World War two, as “purebloods” attempt to wipe out “half-bloods” and those with non-magic parents to take control of the magical society. This song is played as Harry and Hermione slow dance after listening to radio reports of numerous fallen wizards and as tension was high within their trio and the wizarding society as a whole. The song fits very well with the circumstances that took place in the film and it pulls a lot more meaning and perspective into the scene.

2 thoughts on “O Children

  1. Cory Y

    What a haunting song.
    One thing I would also point out is the explicit reference to a “gulag” in the song, meaning that this song could be referring to both the Holocaust and to Soviet gulags during the Cold War.
    For me, some more powerful lines come in the outro with the speaker singing,
    Hey little train, we are all jumping on
    The train that goes to the Kingdom
    We’re happy, Ma, we’re having fun
    It’s beyond my wildest expectation
    These lines seem to have the effect of both implying the naïveté of the speaker and commenting ironically upon the situation that the speaker finds themselves in, especially with the words “little”, “happy”, “fun”, and “Kingdom” giving the impression of a child’s perspective who has been shielded from the truth of their situation. There’s a kind of inevitability that can be felt throughout the song, especially with its gospel-like forwards momentum, that also contributes to the power of these lines as some of the final ones.



    Woah, I had also found this song from the soundtrack but seeing the lyrics written out here with your analysis gave me chills. I now realize it’s such an indecipherable song when you listen to it but if the lyrics were spoken at poetry night it would be incredibly moving. That’s the power of a good songwriter.

    Liked by 1 person

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