‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’ is a line from what is probably W. H. Auden’s best-known poem, ‘Funeral Blues’ (as it’s commonly known) or ‘Stop all the clocks’ (as it’s also known, after its opening words). But what is the meaning of this line, and Auden’s poem as a whole?
Auden’s poem is an elegy: a poem written about somebody who has died. The poem’s speaker is paying tribute to a man whom he loved. The line ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’ reflects the depth of his feeling and how much the man meant to him: since north, south, east, and west cover all four cardinal points of the compass, ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’ is another way of saying, ‘he was my everything’ or ‘he was everything to me’.
But there is more to this poem than meets the eye. Auden’s poem was brought to a whole new audience when it was quoted in full in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral. The popularity of the film, and the actor John Hannah’s moving reading of the poem at the ‘funeral’ of the film’s title, led to Auden’s publisher, Faber and Faber, issuing a slim pamphlet of Auden’s love poems (with a photo of Hugh Grant, the film’s star, rather than Auden on the book’s cover!). That slim collection was a bestseller and broke publishing records for a book of poems published in the UK.
The poem’s third stanza opens with the line, ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’. This stanza makes clear that the man being elegised was everything to the poem’s 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, 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.’
It’s natural, then, to take the poem at face value and see it is a moving and sincere elegy spoken (and written) by one man about some other man. Our default position with interpretations of lyric poetry is always to the personal, as the easy conflation of the speaker of the poem with the poet themselves makes clear. So we talk of ‘Philip Larkin saying this or that in his poem’ or ‘Sylvia Plath expressing her despair at X or Y’. But whilst it is often the case that the speaker of the poem and the poet themselves are one and the same, it cannot be taken for granted.
And it certainly shouldn’t be taken for granted in Auden’s case. And not even for ‘Funeral Blues’, and that supposedly heartfelt expression of grief in the poem’s third stanza: ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’.
Curiously, the poem 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 was not an entirely serious piece of drama (although it was billed as a tragedy).
As Rick Rylance notes in his stimulating and informative book Literature and the Public Good (The Literary Agenda), the poem that millions have taken to their hearts as an earnest and sincere love-elegy began life as a parody of elegies rather than as a bona fide elegy itself. But it has nevertheless become a genuine and heartfelt expression of grief to thousands of readers, and a favourite reading at funerals.
‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’ has thus attained a curious dual status as both a statement laced with irony and mockery and (thanks in particular to the Richard Curtis film) a cri de coeur expressing the gaping loss of grief, the hopeless desolation of losing somebody who meant the world to us.
And after all, when we lose somebody, are we not prone to indulge in exaggeration? Think of all the songs about losing the love of one’s life which talk of the lost beloved being the speaker’s ‘whole world’, his or her ‘everything’, and so on. ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’ rings true because we can all relate to the hyperbole that attends such a feeling of devastation, even though we know deep down that it is hyperbole – much as it began, deliberately so, in Auden’s poem.