W. H. Auden 1936
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.
W. H. Auden was born on February 21, 1907, in York, England, to George (a physician) and Rosalie (a nurse) Auden. His father’s love of the mythology of his Icelandic ancestors and his mother’s strong religious beliefs would have a great influence on Auden’s poetry. After being admitted to Oxford University to study engineering, Auden switched to the literature. His interest in science would later be evident in his poetry. At Oxford Auden became an important member of a group of writers that became known collectively as the “Oxford Group,” and later as the “Auden Generation.” This group, which included Stephen Spender, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice, often expressed their decidedly leftist political views in their work. Stephen Spender arranged in 1928 for the publication of Auden’s first work, Poems. That work, commercially published in 1930, coupled with Auden’s next collection, The Orators published in 1932, earned him, at age twenty-five, a reputation as an important new poet.
After his graduation from Oxford, Auden taught in England until 1939, when he relocated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen. The critical success that followed the publication of his The Collected Poetry helped set his literary reputation as a versatile and inventive writer. He continued to write poetry, plays, and essays while teaching at various colleges and universities, including Bryn Mawr, Bennington, and Oxford. After his death in 1973, he was buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. Auden won several awards during his lifetime, including the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for The Age of Anxiety (1948); the National Book Award for The Shield of Achilles(1956); the Feltrinelli Prize (Rome), 1957; Honorary Student (Fellow), Christ College, Oxford University, 1962-73; and the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Arts and Letters, 1968.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead 5
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Tie crépe bows round the white necks of the public
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest, 10
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; 15
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
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 for ever” 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.
Death is the subject and main theme of “Funeral Blues.” Through the poem Auden makes a compelling statement about the devastating effects that the death of a loved one has on those left behind. The speaker has just lost someone for whom he/she had a deep love. During the course of the poem, the speaker will plan a funeral procession, reveal details about their relationship, and consider the future.
The speaker describes the love he/she felt for the deceased in the third stanza. The lines “He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest, / My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;” express the impact the loved one had on the speaker’s life. The naming of directional points suggests that the deceased provided direction and meaning for the speaker. The time elements that encompass an entire week and a twelve hour day point to a sense of constancy in their relationship. Even as the speaker expressed him/herself through “talk” and “song,” the deceased’s influence was felt. Auden’s modern view in this poem contradicts the romantic notion of love lasting through eternity. The loss of love is final here, as expressed in the twelfth line: “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.”
Order and Disorder
When we lose a loved one who provided a sense of meaning and order, chaos can result. The speaker feels a sense of disorder as a result of losing a relationship that was such an integral part of his/her life. Their love provided the speaker with a sense of time and space and so helped delineate the boundaries of his/her life. The loss of that order prompts the speaker to try to regain some semblance of it through the planning of the funeral procession. First everyday objects are attended to as a somber mood is set. The speaker’s use of the imperative voice helps regain a sense of control. The death has caused a sensitivity to noise, and so the speaker instructs the listener to silence telephones, dogs, and pianos. Telephones are silenced since communication is no longer possible in this chaotic state and playful, barking dogs become an annoyance. Even art, in the form of music from a piano, cannot be appreciated. Clocks must be stopped because time stands still now for the speaker who cannot see any sense of meaning in the future. This attempt
to control and order existence continues as the funeral procession begins. The speaker informs listeners that the only sounds heard shall be the mournful beating of a “muffled drum” and the engines of the “moaning” airplanes as they write the message “He is Dead” in the sky. Further efforts at control include instructions to appropriately decorate the processional path with “crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves” and policemen wearing “black cotton gloves.”
After ruminating on the meaning of the relationship with the loved one, the speaker admits to the disorder that results from death when noting that he/she wrongly assumed “love would last for ever.” In a final attempt to restore order, the speaker turns to the cosmic, instructing listeners to put out stars, pack up the moon, dismantle the sun, pour away the ocean, and sweep up the woods. Since the speaker’s world has been inexorably altered, nature must be as well, for its beauty can not longer offer comfort.
Meaning of Life
Ultimately though, the speaker’s efforts to restore order fail. The absurd situation that results from the complete disruption of the universe after the death of a loved one cannot be explained or resolved. Where the speaker had previously felt a sense of meaning in life through the relationship with the loved one, after his death, that meaning has vanished. In this overwhelming and nonsensical
universe, the speaker expects little, since “nothing now can ever come to any good.”
Auden presents “Funeral Blues” as an elegy to a loved one who is deceased. The poem presents a mixture of traditional and nontraditional elements, reflecting one of its dominant themes: order and disorder. Its somber tone is reflected in its four qua-trains (four-line stanzas), each containing two couplets (end rhyme pattern aabb), and a regular meter of four feet per line. Yet Auden has not chosen a standard rhythmic pattern. Instead he shifts groups of stressed and unstressed syllables that effectively disrupt the poem’s rhythm. This coupling of ordered and unordered patterns symbolizes the speakers efforts, and final failure, to reestablish order in his life after suffering the devastating loss of a loved one.
This mixture of traditional and nontraditional elements continues in the poem’s overall structure as well as its rhyme scheme. “Funeral Blues” does incorporate a syncopated blues rhythm and melancholic tone, as its title suggests, but does not follow the traditional blues structure. Blues are characteristically short (three-line stanzas) and marked by frequent repetition. Often the first line in each stanza is repeated in the second.
Auden’s early poetry was Modernist in style, but as Richard Johnson noted in his article on Auden in The Dictionary of Literary Biography, in the 1930s “he was creating something quite new to modern poetry, a civil style. His reputation at the time was for a certain casualness in his writing.” The Modernist period in England is usually considered to have begun with World War I in 1914 and ended during the depression years in the 1930s. Modernist poets like T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound revolted against traditional literary forms, replacing the standard flow of poetic language with fragmented phrases and broken lines. Modernists vowed, in Ezra Pound’s terms, to “make it new.” They created new poetic structures and styles as they introduced new and sometimes shocking subject matter. Writers employed this type of experimentation in order to reveal a truer reflection of the inner self. Their poems often protested the sterility of society in the early part of the twentieth century and expressed a sense of the speaker’s alienation Page 143 | Top of Articlefrom that society. Part of their goal was to disrupt poetic conventions and therefore readers’ expectations in order to challenge the standards of bourgeois culture. Auden, along with Eliot, Pound, Yeats, and Hopkins helped create this new form.
The Auden Generation
English society in the 1930s became increasingly concerned with the political and economic realities of that decade, especially the rise of Fascism and the threat of another world war. Much of the poetry of this period reflected the culture’s pessimism and turned back to the more realistic structures common in the first decade of the twentieth century. Themes often revolved around class division and sexual repression. The poets of what has come to be known as “The Auden Generation” (Auden along with C. Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender) or “The Oxford Group” addressed these themes with defiance. Each poet envisioned a new world order based on Marxist precepts. Their poetry is characterized by its variety— its use of different genres (like Auden’s adoption of the blues ballad form) and quick shifts of tone, intermingling the colloquial and the obscure, the serious and the playful.
The revised version of “Funeral Blues” appeared in Auden’s collection of poetry, Another Time, published in 1940. Initial reviews of the volume were mixed. Richard Eberhart in the Boston Transcript stated, “These poems maintain Auden’s reputation at its high level. There is scarcely a bad line in the book.” Alfred Kreymborg in Living Age found that the poems reveal “a new note of tenderness, a mature appraisal of love in an otherwise crumbling world.” Other critics, however, felt the poems confirmed their opinion that Auden, in T. C. Worsely’s words in the New Statesman and Nation, “is and always will be an uneven poet.” P. M. Jack writing for The New York Times insists that Another Time “might be called ‘marking time,’ in which many of the faults and few of the virtues of the author are seen. In particular there is a startling restriction of the imagination…. The imagery is hum-drum.”
A few comments specifically on “Funeral Blues” appeared later in scholarly books and articles. Monroe K. Spears in his Poetry of W. H. Auden praised the style of the poem, claiming that its “blues rhythm and syncopation are expertly suggested.” George T. Wright in his book on Auden commends the poem’s “elegant polished expression of longing.” Public response to the poem was overwhelmingly positive after John Hannah recited an excerpt in the hit film Four Weddings and a Funeral. Since the publication of Another Time, scholars’ assessment of Auden’s career has been quite strong. Sean O’Brien in London’s Sunday Times notes “Auden is one of the few modern poets whose reputation has not dimmed in the years following his death…. There is a widening stream of critical and biographical writing, as well as Edward Mendelson’s enormous labours on the gradually emerging Complete Works.” Most scholars would agree with the appraisal of Auden’s body of work made by the National Book Committee, which awarded him the National Medal for Literature in 1967: “[Auden’s poetry] has illuminated our lives and times with grace, wit and vitality. His work, branded by the moral and ideological fires of our age, breathes with eloquence, perception and intellectual power.”
Wendy Perkins, an Associate Professor of English at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland, has published articles on several twentieth-century authors. In this essay she examines the revisions made in the final version of “Funeral Blues” and how those revisions reflected changes in tone and theme.
The first version of W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” appeared in his play The Ascent of F6 in 1936 and was referred to by its first line, “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.” In 1940 Auden included a revised version of the poem in his collection of poetry, Another Time. The revision, which he titled “Funeral Blues,” retained the original poem’s first two stanzas and replaced the last three with two new stanzas. George T. Wright, in his book on the poet, noted that Auden “was a continual reviser, rearranger, and even discarder of his early poems.” This revision, however, was one of his more drastic ones. When Auden turned “Stop all the clocks” into “Funeral Blues,” he transformed a confused mixture of burlesque and sorrow into a stirring lament over the death of a loved one, creating what Sean O’Brien in London’s Sunday Times called his most “accessible” poem.
The Ascent of F6, written with Auden’s long-time collaborator Christopher Isherwood, was a critical success when it was first presented by the Group Theatre in 1937, but the play’s reputation has suffered over the years. The plot focuses on the quest to climb a mountain by a group of characters who all have personal reasons for the expedition. Michael J. Sidnell, in his article on Auden for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, argues that the play’s main theme reveals “the authors’ disenchantment with group worlds.” Sidnell continues, “On the one hand it presents, in flat caricature, a group of English establishment cronies mixing sport and politics in a strong solution of cant; on the other, a group of high-minded mountaineers who, under stress, are revealed as ordinarily weak men.” “Stop all the clocks” appears in the play as a song sung by two characters following the strange death of James Ransom, one of the leaders of the climb. The song is sung in an odd scene that Joseph Warren Beach, in his book The Making of the Auden Canon, called “a strange mixture of allegory and burlesque, at the same time that the dialogue continues to pursue a serious and somewhat mystifying psychological theme—musical comedy style.” The last three stanzas reflect this odd mixture as they refer to the other members of the climbing party and the funeral of Ransom.
Beach argues that these stanzas are “inferior in quality and too monotonously lugubrious in tone.” Their tone, however, also becomes frivolous and absurd, especially in the last stanza with its attention on racing the coffin to the gravesite. The hyperbole (an overstatement characterized by exaggerated language) in the fourth stanza turns the funeral ceremony into a burlesque. The “weeping” crowds listen to “a few words sad and kind” while another character employs “a powerful microscope” as he “searches their faces for a sign of hope.” The comic tone at the end of the poem turns the first two stanzas into an exaggerated sentiment on the death of a loved one. The entire poem, then, becomes a parody of the traditional blues lyric.
After Auden revised the poem, it was set to music by Benjamin Britten and sung by soprano Hedli Anderson for the stage. John Fuller, in W.H. Auden: A Commentary noted, “The ironic effect of the hyperbole is much changed when the song is sung by a single singer lamenting the death of her lover.” The new version becomes in Wright’s words an “elegant polished expression of longing.” Beach insists that the fragments of the old and revised version “are pieced together without any striking evidence of their separate origin. They make together a lively composition in a vein appealing to world-weary modern readers as well as sophisticated nightclub audiences.”
In the new version, the first two stanzas strike a somber note as the speaker prepares for the funeral of a loved one. The first few lines introduce the poem’s main theme: when death ends a relationship that affords life a sense of meaning and completeness, people often engage in a desperate struggle to restore order in the midst of the ensuing chaos. In an effort to reestablish the order provided by the relationship with the loved one, the speaker gives commands as to what must be done for the ceremony. John G. Blair, in The Poetic Art of W. H. Auden noted, “Auden frequently chooses the imperative to attract attention.” Blair states that this technique 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.” In these first lines the speaker directs others to alter the landscape so it will become symbolic of his/her emotional state. 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 and appropriate 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 Page 145 | Top of Articlemourners come. The speaker then orders the listeners to have “moaning” airplanes fly overhead, writing “He Is Dead,” with unavoidable finality. 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.
In the third stanza, the speaker reveals the sense of order he/she experienced prior to the death of the loved one. 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 for ever” but now admits, “I was wrong.” Auden reinforces this sense of disillusionment with a caesura in the middle of this line, separating the speaker’s previous romantic illusions from the harsh reality of the present.
The speaker’s efforts to create order from chaos cannot alleviate the sense of disillusionment coupled with feelings of bitterness expressed in the poem’s final stanza. 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 turns from the everyday objects (the telephones, clocks, and piano) to cosmic ones (stars, moon, sun), traditional subjects for ballads, and expresses a desire to alter the universe. Auden employs a caesura (a pause that breaks rhythm) 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” (the loved one) 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. Ultimately then, the speaker’s efforts to restore order fail. The speaker’s world has been shattered by a death that cannot be explained or resolved.
Hayden Carruth, in his article in The Hudson Review, commented on Auden’s revision process: “And always his revisions were in the direction of simplicity and clarity, suppressing whatever was in the least inflated or mushy or unearned. For honesty he threw away the products of his rhetorical genius without a qualm.” Auden’s revision of “Funeral Blues” removes the burlesque elements of the early version in its clear and honest presentation of an individual’s desperate attempt to cope with a devastating loss. The final version of the poem becomes a moving and powerful portrait of the effects that death can have on those who remain behind.
Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
In the following essay, Johnson contends that the title “Funeral Blues” is a somewhat misleading one, since this poem’s primary concern is not with death but with love.
Auden’s poem “Funeral Blues” is better known by its first line, “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,” and perhaps for good reason. As he did with many of his poems over the course of his career, Auden made several changes to the language of “Funeral Blues” as he prepared it for republication. In addition to these revisions, Auden placed the poem in different contexts at different times, and these contexts affect its meaning almost as much as the words themselves. The poem first appeared in the 1936 play, The Ascent of F6. The poem was then significantly revised and published under the title “Funeral Blues” in Auden’s 1940 collection, Another Time. This poem was also included in Collected Shorter Poems and Collected Poems, published in 1966 and 1976, respectively. Though the text of the poem remained the same as it was in Another Time, in both these later volumes it was presented with only the title “IX,” as one poem in a sequence called “Twelve Songs.”
Thus, over forty years, the poem underwent several transformations until it took on its final shape and title in Collected Shorter Poems and Collected Poems. It is significant that in the last volume of Auden’s verse the poem appears exactly as it did in Collected Shorter Poems and that he continues to call it “IX,” not “Funeral Blues.” Although Collected Poems was published three years after Auden’s death, the poet had nearly total control over its production, and the volume presents all the poems Auden wished to preserve, and in their final form. The other lyrics in the series “Twelve Songs” are various types of love poems. In replacing the title “Funeral Blues” with a number, Auden may have signalled that it, too, is a love poem of sorts. Thus, although a funeral provides the occasion for reflection and mourning, the impetus behind this poem is not to understand death, but to understand love.
Nevertheless, first and foremost “Funeral Blues” expresses the pain of loss. (Despite the questions I raise concerning the title, for the sake of convenience, I will continue to refer to this poem as “Funeral Blues.”) The poet calls for quiet and for reverence: “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, / Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone, / Silence the pianos and with muffled drum / Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.” The only sound the poet will allow is that of a “muffled drum” and, of course, of his own verse. According to the literary critic John Fuller, Auden first wrote the poem for inclusion in the 1936 play, The Ascent of F6, an allegorical tale about power in which the hero is mountain climber Michael Ransom. The poem is sung in response to what Fuller calls “the phantasmagoric death of James Ransom,” Michael’s brother (W. H. Auden: A Commentary). The poem in this drama is comprised of five stanzas, and it is sung by two characters, Lord Stag-mantle and Lady Isabel. The first two stanzas are identical to those of the poem later published as “Funeral Blues,” but the last three have nothing in common with the last stanzas of the later version of the poem. In them, Stagmantle and Isabel reflect on the fates of other people in their climbing party, and the purpose of the song is to chastise Michael for causing the death of his brother. However, the drama is based in fantasy, and James’ death is not real, but only imagined. Therefore, the tone is relatively comic, or at least not as tragic as the poem in isolation might suggest.
When the poem appears as “Funeral Blues” in Another Time, the text is much changed. There it stands as the third of four poems in the sequence “Four Cabaret Songs for Miss Hedli Anderson.” In these cabaret songs the singer is reflecting on the death of her lover, but they are contained in a section of the book called “Lighter Poems.” The tone becomes slightly more serious when the poem appears in Collected Shorter Poems and Collected Poems. In these later volumes, “Funeral Blues” is surrounded by eleven other poems, all written between 1935 and 1938. The subject of loss is complemented by other themes, such as desire, secrecy, and love (and, specifically, homosexual love). Though these themes are more explicitly explored in the other eleven poems, they resonate importantly in this one, and they disclose the motivation behind the poet’s hyperbolic language.
The poet’s grief is so great that he makes no attempt to comprehend death or to meditate upon it: he simply accepts it as the end of not one man’s life but as the end of all life. The poem engages in hyperbole, or dramatic overstatement, closing with the astonishing proclamation that “The stars are not wanted now; put out every one, / Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun, / Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; / For nothing now can ever come to any good.” In the face of this death, the Page 147 | Top of Articlepoet claims, there is no need to go on living, so there is no need to preserve the sun or moon or anything else that sustains human existence.
The poet’s exaggerations materialize in the form of the poem as well as in its content. The dominant line here is a ten-syllable line, as occurs in “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone” and “Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.” But many of the other lines extend to eleven or even twelve syllables, as in “Tie crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves” and “Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.” These extra syllables may represent the excess of feeling which cannot be contained within the limits of language: the speaker’s emotions spill out beyond ten syllables, requiring surplus beats to accommodate them. These longer lines may also symbolize how the speaker feels his loss extends beyond his private world into the public realm. The poet demands that airplanes moan and scribble “on the sky the message He Is Dead” for all to see. He believes that everyone will suffer as a result of his friend’s death and that everyone and everything (including animals, machines, and objects in nature) should participate in his lament.
The speaker’s distress is so vast because the deceased person was, in life, his lover: “He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week, and my Sunday rest, / My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song….” It might seem that the poet likens his lover to a compass and a calendar, as if to suggest how his lover helped him to define who he was and where he existed. But his lover was more the means by which to determine physical location or measure time: he was physical location, he was time. Because the lover was everything that verifies and constitutes life, geography and temporality no longer have any meaning for the poet. Even more than this, the lover was “my talk, my song,” identifying him with speech, language, and poetry, which are all of immeasurable value to a poet. The lover was the tool by which the poet expressed and understood himself, and now that tool is gone.
If it is not evident from the language of “Funeral Blues,” it is clear from the other lyrics in the sequence “Twelve Songs” that the speaker is male and that their passion did not meet with the approval of conventional society. In the fourth song, Auden speaks of kissing his lover, “Indifferent to those / Who sat with hostile eyes” directed toward the pair. In “Autumn Song,” the sixth poem, “Whispering neighbours left and right / Daunt us from
our true delight….” In the poem immediately preceding “Funeral Blues,” Auden refers to “a wicked secret” and confides that “There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.” All these comments point to the existence of what some people might consider an illicit love, that is, one between two men.
Auden only uses the word “love” once in this poem, and his tone is simultaneously sarcastic and despairing: “I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.” The fact that “love” only becomes visible in a single instance might suggest that this topic is not of great importance to the poem. However, this is by far the most grave and deliberate line in the poem. It is composed of eleven words, only one of which contains more than one syllable. The monosyllabic words emphasize and protract each beat of the line until it arrives at the loud, deep, and irrevocable sound of “wrong.” When the poet sees his mistake, when he understands that eternal love is impossible, he realizes that his calls in the first two stanzas were insufficient. It is not enough to stage a public procession of mourning in a single town on earth; instead, the entire planet and everything in the universe must come to an end.
Yet, though the poet seems to confirm that there is no such thing as everlasting love, his gesture to do away with the universe in response to love’s passing indicates that in fact he equates the breadth of love with that of the universe. In other words, the infinitude of the universe makes no sense if love, too, is not infinite and eternal; thus if one is destroyed, they both are. Since the poet does not have the power to close down the universe, perhaps he is admitting that he may be similarly powerless to declare the end of love, regardless
of his sorrow. Or perhaps he is acknowledging that love, with all its anguish and all its joy, will renew itself perpetually, and that in the future the poet will experience it—and write about—again and again.
In some of the other “Twelve Poems” Auden addresses homosexual love, and in “Funeral Blues” the poet specifically identifies the deceased as male. Nevertheless, there is a universalizing gesture in this poem, as its voice changes several times. When it appeared in The Ascent of F6, “Funeral Blues” was to be sung by two people, one man and one woman. In Another Time, the “song” has a female singer, Hedli Anderson. In Collected Poems, Auden does not identify a particular speaker, further underscoring the flexibility of the poem. What literary critic James Fenton says of the fourth lyric in “Twelve Songs” is equally true of the ninth: “any reader can be the lover, the speaker of this poem,” and the critic remarks that “there is generosity in this” (“Auden at Home”). What Fenton means is that Auden allows readers to use the poet’s personal experience and apply it to their own lives, regardless of the gender of the reader or of the reader’s beloved. In this Fenton substantiates what Auden’s poem makes clear: that love, like poetry, is not only exceptionally resilient but also benevolently versatile.
Source: Jeannine Johnson, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Aviya Kushner, who is the poetry editor for New World Renaissance Magazine, earned an M.A. in creative writing from Boston University. In the following essay, Ms. Kushner discusses Auden’s perspective on personal and public grief and how he parallels the two in his poem Funeral Blues.
During Auden’s lifetime, Auden witnessed both World Wars and the deaths of many important public figures. Auden found himself writing many elegies, memorializing and capturing the impact these figures had on the public and their century. Auden’s “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” remarks on the difficulty of writing an elegy when there are so many to mourn:
When there are so many we shall have to mourn,
when grief has been made so public, and exposed
to the critique of a whole epoch
the frailty of our conscience and anguish,
of whom shall we speak?
Thus, the poet’s challenge, even when writing about a famous man, is to write something that distinguishes his subject from all the others who have recently died.
Here, in “Funeral Blues,” Auden, through the voice of the speaker, seems to be writing an elegy for someone who meant a great deal to him personally. Although Auden does not clearly state about whom the poem is written, one can gather that speaker loved this person dearly. However, it is not clear that this is a conventional elegy: Auden may simply be mourning the end of a relationship, not a death. In either reading, Auden is wrestling with the realization that love does not always last. Auden uses some of his favorite images here to stress the fragility of love: clocks, midnight, ocean. With the “death” of this person in the speaker’s world, time has stopped, and there is no reason for communication. All that is warranted now is quiet, to “silence the pianos,” “cut off the telephone.”
Although Auden wants this world to come to a halt, the death must be announced, as the next stanza details:
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message: He is Dead.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
This stanza is about opening up this private grief for a public mourning. These images insist that everyone share in this person’s loss because not only has the speaker lost someone very special, essentially, so has the world. Still, Auden is keeping a tight control on this stanza and about how this loss will be shared. The first line invoking the aeroplanes is a bold image. With the planes “moaning” overhead and the message being “scribbled” in the sky, large numbers of people are sure to note their significance. But then Auden seems to bring the Page 149 | Top of Articleloss back, emphasizing the loss of the speaker. The funeral messages get smaller, to the fine detail of the color of the policemen’s gloves. These messages are more subtle and imply that only those very close to the deceased would note them. At the same time, it is interesting that very public figures (the policemen) wear the symbols. Auden carefully straddles that line between the public and private interpretations of grief.
Auden seems then to turn the poem, wanting the speaker to unequivocally claim this person, detailing his worth and value. The third stanza states:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
With nine uses of “my” in three lines, the speaker takes possession of his subject. Auden wanted to convey that this man was the central element of the speaker’s life, that no matter the direction he turned, no matter the hour, this man was there. Auden also notes that the person was the speaker’s “talk,” his “song.” Talk implies words and perhaps creations with words, such as poetry. What Auden is emphasizing here is that along with everything else, this man was the speaker’s muse, the source of his artistic creation. These lines again stress the need to silence everything. Without this man, the speaker has lost his need to speak. With the loss of his core, there is nothing to sing about.
Auden then puts this private mourning back into the public sphere. With everything essential gone in the speaker’s world, the obvious connection is to remove all that is essential in the world at large:
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
The drastic actions suggested in this stanza signify on a larger scale what has happened in the speaker’s life. The speaker has already lost his sun, his moon, his stars. Removing these objects would no longer have an impact on his life, but others would then be able to grasp the enormity of his sorrow.
Although Auden’s elegies seem to express his personal bereavement at a particular person’s passing, upon closer readings, one can see how he invites the public to share in the mourning process and really look at what has been lost with this death. With his elegies for more public figures like Sigmund Freud or W.B. Yeats, it is easier to share in Auden’s sentiments because of his reader’s familiarity with his subjects. The magic of Auden, however, is how he is able to invoke his reader’s emotions and have them share and grieve for the loss of someone who is never even named.
Source: Aviya Kushner, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 2001.
Auden, W. H., and Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6, Faber and Faber, 1936.
———, Another Time, Random House, 1940.
———, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, Vintage, 1991.
———, Collected Shorter Poems: 1927–1957, Random House, 1966.
Beach, Joseph Warren, The Making of the Auden Canon, University of Minnesota Press, 1957.
Blair, John G., The Poetic Art of W. H. Auden, Princeton University Press, 1965.
Carruth, Hayden, review, in The Hudson Review Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer, 1982, pp. 334-40.
Eberhart, Richard, review, in Boston Transcript, March 27, 1940, p. 13.
Fenton, James, “Auden at Home,” in The New York Review of Books April, 27, 2000, pp. 8-14.
Fuller, John, W. H. Auden: A Commentary, Princeton University Press, 1998.
Gritten, David, “A Look inside Hollywood and the Movies: W. H. Auden’s Star Rises with ‘Weddings,’” in Los Angeles Times, June 26, 1994, p. 25.
Jack, P. M., review, in New York Times, February 18, 1940, p. 2.
Johnson, Richard, Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 20: British Poets, 1914–1945, Gale, 1983, pp. 19-51.
Kreymborg, Alfred, review, in Living Age, Vol. 358, p. 195.
O’Brien, Sean, “The Auden Regeneration,” in Sunday Times(London), July 31, 1994.
Sidnell, Michael J., “W. H. Auden,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 10: Modern British Dramatists, 1900–1945, Gale, 1982, pp. 12-24.
Spears, Monroe K., The Poetry of W. H. Auden, Oxford University Press, 1963.
Worsley, T. C., review, in New Statesman and Nation, Vol. 20, July 27, 1940, p. 92.
Wright, George T., “W. H. Auden: Chapter 11: Down Among the Lost People,” in Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.
For Further Study
Bogan, Louise, review, in The New Yorker, February 24, 1940, p. 76.
This reviewer finds Auden’s love poems in Another Time to be too “metaphysical.”
Review, in Times Literary Supplement, July 6, 1940, p. 328.
This review of Auden’s Another Time praises Auden’s verses “that spring from a deeper center without any loss of that closeness to the tumbled texture of modern life in which he has always excelled.”