A critical reading of ‘Funeral Blues’
W. H. Auden’s poem ‘Stop all the clocks’ – poem number IX in his Twelve Songs, and also sometimes known as ‘Funeral Blues’ – is a poem so famous and universally understood that perhaps it is unnecessary to offer much in the way of textual analysis. Yet we’re going to offer some notes towards an analysis of ‘Funeral Blues’ in this post, because if a poem does touch us and move us in some way – especially so many of us – it’s always worth trying to explain why. The poem – and the work of W. H. Auden (1907-73) more generally – was brought to a whole new audience when it was quoted in full in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which Auden is described as a ‘splendid bugger’. You can read ‘Stop all the clocks’, which was first published in 1936, here.
A brief summary of ‘Funeral Blues’ first. The poem is divided into four stanzas. The first two stanzas see the speaker of the poem, who is mourning the loss of a close friend (or, indeed, a lover), making a series of requests or commands. In the first stanza, he asks that the clocks be stopped, the telephone be cut off so it cannot ring, the dog be kept quiet with a bone to gnaw, and the music of the pianos be discontinued. Instead, let the muffled drumbeats – historically associated with funerals – accompany the coffin as it is brought out and the mourners at the funeral arrive.
So far, so straightforward. During a funeral and, more widely, a time of mourning, you might not want to be disturbed by the noise of the world around you, partly because you need time to grieve and partly because such sounds are a reminder that the world around you carries on. The requests the speaker makes are paving the way for the funeral, after all.
In the second stanza, the speaker’s requests become different, however. He moves from a private or close-knit ceremony of mourning – the funeral of ‘Funeral Blues’ – to wish for an altogether more public display of grief. But this is faintly absurd. He asks that the planes circle in the sky and, using the relatively recent phenomenon of skywriting (first used for advertising purposes by the Daily Mail in 1922, just over a decade before Auden wrote ‘Funeral Blues’), that the message ‘He Is Dead’ be scribbled across the sky. This is, to say the least, unlikely to happen. The crepe bows he wants to put round the necks of the public doves (what are ‘public doves’, by the way – does he mean pigeons?) suggests that the speaker’s grief is overwhelming and that he wants the whole world to mourn with him. The bows round the necks of the doves, and the black cotton gloves – black being associated with mourning – that he wants the traffic policemen to wear, are both excessive and unreasonable requests to make, but this is precisely the point. One’s personal grief dwarfs the concerns of the rest of the world, and it often becomes inconceivable that everyone else would not share in the feeling of loss and sorrow the individual feels.
Indeed, as the third stanza makes clear, the man who has died was everything to the speaker: no matter where he was, or what day it was, or what time of day, the dead man was the speaker’s life. This suggests that the speaker is talking about more than a friend, and is lamenting the loss of a lover: Auden himself was gay, of course, and the idea that the poem is an elegy by a male poet for a dead male lover is certainly how the poem was interpreted in Four Weddings and a Funeral, where John Hannah’s character recites the poem at the death of his lover, played by Simon Callow. The speaker thought that his lover would always be around, but with three simple words, heartbreakingly delivered at the end of the stanza, he concludes: ‘I was wrong.’
The final stanza then takes a number of romantic tropes typically associated with poetry – the stars, the moon, the sun, the oceans – and rejects them as unhelpful. What use are such symbols of romantic love when you have lost your one true love? As with the previous stanza, the power of Auden’s poetry in this stanza lies in the contrast between this catalogue of now-useless poetic tropes in the first three lines and the final line, which is breathtakingly simple and direct. But mentioning these poetic tropes has a dual purpose: as well as rejecting the usefulness of such romantic talk in the face of his grief, the speaker is also saying that the world – indeed, the entire universe – is of no worth if it does not have his lover in it. The word ‘dismantle’ verges on the flippant in the second line, as if the sun is a mechanical device that one can simply take apart, like a watch. It suggests that even the natural world seems fake and unreal now that the joys of the world have been taken from him.
Curiously, ‘Stop All the Clocks’ began life as a piece of burlesque sending up blues lyrics of the 1930s: Auden originally wrote it for a play he was collaborating on with Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6 (1936), which wasn’t entirely serious (although it was billed as a tragedy). As Rick Rylance has recently noted in his stimulating and informative book Literature and the Public Good (The Literary Agenda), ‘the poem taken so sincerely to the hearts of many people was, in origin, a p*ss-take.’ But it has nevertheless become a genuine and heartfelt expression of grief to thousands of readers, and a favourite reading at funerals.
As we said at the start of this close reading, many readers may feel that no additional analysis of W. H. Auden’s poem is required. ‘Funeral Blues’ is not a difficult or elusive (or allusive) poem. But some its images are worth commenting on, as well as the way it achieves its emotional effects, the way it carries such a punch.
Image: W. H. Auden in 1939, by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons.
The poet calls for the clocks to be stopped, the telephone to be cut off, and the dog and pianos silenced. The coffin will be brought out to the mourners with a muffled drum and under the moan of airplanes that spell out the message, “He Is Dead.” Doves are to be decked with bows around their necks, and the traffic policemen are to wear black cotton gloves.
The poet thinks of the deceased as “my North, my South, my East and West,” his work and his rest, his noon and his midnight, his talk and his song. He incorrectly thought their love would last forever.
The stars, moon, sun, ocean, and forests, the poet writes, should be sent away; they are no longer needed, and “nothing now can ever come to any good.”
“Funeral Blues” has an interesting composition history. It originally appeared as a song in a play Auden cowrote with Christopher Isherwood called The Ascent of F6. In this form the last two stanzas were not included, and three others followed instead. The characters in the play were specifically invoked, and the play was an ironic statement on how “great men” are lionized after their deaths. The poem was then included in Auden’s poetry collection of 1936 (sometimes under the book title Look, Stranger!, which Auden hated). The poem was titled “Funeral Blues” by 1937, when it was published in Collected Poems. Here it had been rewritten as a cabaret song to fit with the kind of burlesque reviews popular in Berlin, and it was intended for Hedli Anderson in a piece by Benjamin Britten. It is also sometimes referred to as “Funeral Blues (Stop All the Clocks)” due to its famous first line. It is perhaps most famous for its delivery by a character in the English comedy/drama Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which a character mourns his dead lover.
The poem in the format readers usually see it today is a dirge, or a lament for the dead. Its tone is much more somber than early iterations, and the themes more universal, although it speaks of an individual. It has four stanzas of four lines each with lines in varying numbers of syllables but containing about four beats each. Auden plays with the form a bit in the poem, and critics debate whether or not this was a manifestation of his tendency to do just that—whether he was simply playing around or intended a larger point.
As with many of his poems, there is a mingling of the high and the low. This is in the style of a classical elegy, though it features informal language and objects of everyday life such as a telephone. This mingling, writes one scholar, “is a powerful modernist move, one which suggests that only by embracing the modern world can art come to terms with the complexities of human experience.”
The poem appears from the perspective of a man (seemingly the poet himself) deeply mourning the loss of a lover who has died. He begins by calling for silence from the everyday objects of life—the telephone and the clocks—and the pianos, drums, and animals nearby. He doesn’t just want quiet, however; he wants his loss writ large. He wants the life of his lover—seemingly a normal, average man—to be proclaimed to the world as noble and valuable. He wants airplanes to write the message “He Is Dead” in the sky, crepe bows around doves, and traffic policemen wearing black gloves. What seems unbearable to him is the thought that this man’s passing from life to death will be unmarked by anyone other than the poet.
In the third stanza the poet reminisces about how much the man who died meant to him. It is a beautifully evocative section that illustrates the bond between the two; note the theme of completeness in the language, which covers all four primary compass directions and all seven days of the week. Similarly, “noon” and “midnight” together cover, by synecdoche (parts standing for the whole), all hours of the day. The stanza, at the same time, reveals the tragedy of human life, which is that everyone must die and that almost everyone will experience being severed from a loved one; love does not, after all, last forever in this world.
In the fourth stanza the poet’s anguish rings out even more fervently. Here he demands that Nature heed his grief, calling her to extinguish the stars and the moon and the sun and get rid of the ocean. He wants the world to reflect the emptiness within him. Human memorials to the dead will not be sufficient. There is no hope at the end of the poem; the reader is left with the very real and very bitter sense of the man’s grief, since no end can be achieved without the poet’s lover.