A critical reading of Auden’s ‘Funeral Blues’ by Dr Oliver Tearle
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.
Discover more of Auden’s work with our discussion of his classic poem about suffering and the fall of Icarus, his poem about New York refugees, and his short poem about tyrants. Continue to explore Auden’s work with the wonderful Collected Auden.
You can watch John Hannah reciting ‘Funeral Blues’ in Four Weddings and a Funeral here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: W. H. Auden in 1939, by Carl Van Vechten, via Wikimedia Commons.