The Auden poem called "Funeral Blues" first appeared in The Ascent of F6, Auden's 1936 play written with his longtime collaborator Christopher Isherwood. This version of the poem was known by its first line: "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone." Later, Auden discarded the last three stanzas of the poem and added three new ones and the title, "Funeral Blues." The rewritten stanzas converted a musical comedy piece to a melancholy lament. Auden offered this revised version as a cabaret song, which was set to music by Benjamin Britten and sung by soprano Hedli Anderson for the stage. In 1940 Auden included "Funeral Blues" in Another Time, a collection of his poetry.
The 1994 cinema hit Four Weddings and a Funeral helped bring the poem to the attention of the general public, when a character played by actor John Hannah reads an excerpt at the film's emotional climax. As a result of overwhelming public demand for copies of the poem, Tell Me the Truth About Love: Ten Poems by W. H. Auden, a collection of Auden's verse and cabaret songs from the 1930s including "Funeral Blues", was rushed to press soon after the film's release. Reviewer David Gritten noted in the Los Angeles Times that the film created "a sudden demand all over England" for Auden's works. Americans have also shown an increased interest in the author. Filmgoers and readers responded to "Funeral Blues'" heartfelt expression of grief over the death of a loved one. The poem expresses a rhythmical, intimate portrait of the totality of love and the devastating consequences of its absence.
The title "Funeral Blues" sets the somber tone that Auden reinforces in the first stanza, where the speaker prepares for a funeral. The speaker uses an imperative voice throughout the poem. John G. Blair in The Poetic Art of W. H. Auden noted that "Auden frequently chooses the imperative to attract attention." This technique, according to Blair, brings the poem "closer to the dramatic immediacy of dialogue, for the speaking voice is usually directed not to the reader but to an audience or another character whose presence is implied by the framing of the poem." The technique also helps the speaker try to gain a sense of control that was lost when their loved one died. Using this imperative voice, the speaker tries to encourage others to alter the landscape to more closely reflect the speaker's emotional state.
In the first two stanzas, the speaker demands that certain rituals be performed during the funeral ceremony. In the first stanza, the speaker, expressing an overtly sensitive response to everyday sounds, calls for a silence that is both respectful and representative of his internal state of mind. Clocks, telephones, dogs, and pianos must not make a sound in honor of the one who has died. Clocks must stop, since time, in essence, has stopped for the speaker after the loss of love. Telephones must be cut off since no further communication is desired. Dogs, who often bark during play, must be quieted since the speaker does not feel playful. Not even the music from a piano can be appreciated. The only sound the speaker wants to hear is the somber beat of a "muffled" drum as the funeral procession begins. Only after these careful preparations have been completed can the coffin be brought out and the mourners allowed to arrive.
In these lines, the speaker insists that the surroundings reflect the somber occasion and the speaker's mood. The only sound called for besides the muffled drum is the "moaning" of airplanes overhead that write "He Is Dead" in the sky for onlookers. These two sounds more closely reflect and perpetuate the speaker's mood. The processional path must be appropriately decorated with "crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves" and black gloves must be worn by policemen.
The focus shifts in these lines from the funeral procession to a description of the speaker's relationship with the deceased. All the images in this stanza illustrate the prodigious effect the loved one had on the speaker. The first three lines describe the completeness of their relationship in images of distance and time. The ninth line, "He was my North, my South, my East and West," suggests that he gave the speaker direction and a sense of constancy. The next line and a half, "my working week and my Sunday rest, / My noon, my midnight" describes him as an integral part of every moment of the speaker's daily life. He influenced the speaker's communication ("my talk") and mood ("my song"). These lines suggest that he was, in fact, the speaker's life. The final line of this stanza expresses the genuine sorrow the speaker experiences over his/her loss and points to a growing sense of disillusionment. The speaker had previously believed "that love would last forever" but now admits, "I was wrong." Auden reinforces this sense of disillusionment with a caesura (a break in rhythm) in the middle of this line, separating the speaker's previous romantic illusions from the harsh reality of the present.
The sense of disillusionment continues in the poem's final stanza and becomes coupled with feelings of bitterness. The ceremony so carefully constructed by the speaker in the first two stanzas does not seem to be enough to express or reflect his/her intense grief. As a result, the speaker expresses a desire to alter the universe. Auden employs a caesura in the middle of the thirteenth line to show the effects of the speaker's sorrow and his/her desire to recreate the universe in order to objectify that sorrow. The beauty of nature cannot be appreciated anymore. Since the stars "are not wanted now," the landscape must change. The speaker's "star" has been effectively "put out," and so the moon, the sun, the ocean, and the woods must be packed up, dismantled, poured away and swept up since they can no longer offer comfort. As in stanza two, the speaker here calls for all to recognize and echo his suffering. The world has changed after the death of his love, and as a result "nothing now can ever come to any good." There is no romantic sense in the finality of that statement of the transcendence of love or the possibility of regaining that love after death.