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.
‘Funeral Blues’: summary
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.
So, 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.
‘Funeral Blues’: analysis
‘Funeral Blues’ is, then, a poem full of common tropes associated with funerals and mourning. But immediately from those opening words onwards, ‘Stop all the clocks’, there is a suggestion that the poem is going above and beyond – or asking us to go above and beyond – the usual conventions associated with the mourning of a lost loved one. (After all, who stops all the clocks when someone suffers a personal tragedy, apart from Miss Havisham?)
And when we examine the tropes and images of Auden’s poem more closely, it becomes more interesting. Is this poem, after all, a sincere expression of personal grief? There is a sense of the melodramatic in many of the (impossible or unreasonable) requests the speaker demands: putting out all of the stars, for instance, or pouring away all the oceans. Even asking the traffic policemen to don black gloves in recognition of the passing of the dead person seems excessive.
Perhaps, then, this is not merely an expression of personal grief, but a poem of mourning for a more public figure? After all, we are used to more rhetoric, and to wholesale public displays of mourning, when a high-profile public figure dies. That said, sky-writing the news of the person’s death – when sky-writing using aeroplanes was more common for celebrations or for advertising – seems to strike an odd note. What is Auden saying, then?
In that final stanza, too, the word ‘dismantle’ verges on being 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. But it is also overblown. Should we, then, respond to these lines as a symptom of the speaker’s hyper-emotional grief for the death of someone who was, as he himself acknowledges, his everything, his north, south, east, and west? Maybe. But then, maybe not.
Looking into the origins of ‘Stop All the Clocks’ and placing the poem within this original literary context helps to make sense of these aspects. Although it is often read and even analysed as a sincere and personal expression of grief, spoken and written by one man about the death of another man – and Auden himself is one of the best-known gay poets of the twentieth century – this was not how the poem was originally conceived. It was not personal, but public; and not sincere, but, in actual fact, a parody.
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). The play is about a climber named Michael Ransom who undertakes a sponsored expedition to the peak of a fictional mountain named F6. Ransom (spoiler alert) is desperate to beat a rival nation to the peak and dies in his hasty attempt to be the first to scale the mountain.
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.
And it might be more accurate to say that half of the poem began as a parody: the first two stanzas of ‘Funeral Blues’ (or ‘Stop All the Clocks’) appear in The Ascent of F6, but the second half of the poem as we know it was added later. (Instead of ‘He was my North, my South’ etc. we get, in The Ascent of F6, the rather more tongue-in-cheek couplet, ‘Hold up your umbrellas to keep off the rain / From Doctor Williams while he opens a vein’.)
It appears that Auden salvaged those two stanzas from the otherwise forgotten play he wrote with Isherwood, and added two new stanzas to them, turning the poem into a more serious expression of grief and lost love. And yet traces of the poem’s original satirical mode remain, such as in that uneasy opening couplet of ‘telephone’ and ‘juicy bone’, and the excessive language used throughout, noted above.
‘Funeral Blues’ is written in quatrains rhymed aabb: although it is arranged into quatrains or four-line stanzas, its rhyme scheme is rhyming couplets. The metre of the poem is (loosely) iambic pentameter, although there are many variations, with the second line having twelve syllables, for instance. This gives the poem a more conversational and unpredictable feel which is perhaps fitting for a poem about the vagaries of personal grief, and the poem’s origins as a satire on public outpourings of loss and mourning only serve to reinforce such an interpretation.
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.
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was ‘Tennysonian’ but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call ‘modernism’.
Surprisingly given his later, better-known work, Auden’s early poetry flirted with the obscurity of modernism: in 1932 his long work The Orators (a mixture of verse and prose poetry with an incomprehensible plot) was published by Faber and Faber, then under the watchful eye of none other than T. S. Eliot. Auden later distanced himself from this experimental false start, describing The Orators as the kind of work produced by someone who would later either become a fascist or go mad.
Auden thankfully did neither, embracing instead a more traditional set of poetic forms (he wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s) and a more direct way of writing that rejected modernism’s love of obscure allusion. This does not mean that Auden’s work is always straightforward in its meaning, and arguably his most famous poem, ‘Funeral Blues’, is often ‘misread’ as sincere elegy when it was intended to be a send-up or parody of public obituaries.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers who saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade. In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90% of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.
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.