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W. H. Auden's "Funeral Blues"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

W. H. Auden

W. H. Auden

Introduction and Text of "Funeral Blues"

W. H. Auden's "Funeral Blues," which is also known by the title, "Stop all the Clocks," is the opening poem in a duet of titles, known as "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson." Contemporary poetry lovers and movie buffs will, no doubt, recall that this poem was read in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral.

This poem displays in four rimed stanzas. All stanzas feature the rime scheme, AABB, which means that each stanza is composed of two rimed couplets. The poem is quite easy, even for beginning poetry readers, to understand; its only controlling poetic device features hyperbole, that is, exaggeration.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Funeral Blues

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
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
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,
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;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

Reading of "Funeral Blues"

Commentary

Featured in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral, this poem reveals a rather tricky strategy—its comedic effects actually heightens the trauma of loss, dramatized in the piece.

First Stanza: Stop It—Now—Everything!

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 first stanza finds the speaker, who is a mourner, beginning an extended exaggeration of his grievance as he commands all the clocks to stop, and all telephones to be "cut off." The speaker also desires that dogs be kept from barking by giving them "a juicy bone."

He then demands that piano players be required to stop playing their cheerful tunes and that they have in place of those tunes a funeral dirge with a "muffled drum." Then in the final line of the first stanza, the speaker reveals the reason that he wishes everything to cease: life for the speaker feels as though it has stopped because his belovèd is now dead.

The jaunty feel of the piece seems to run counter to the message. Two riming couples give each stanza a cheerfulness that contrasts with such terms as "coffin" and "mourners." The speaker’s attitude toward his subject seems somewhat stern and deliberately mocking.

Commanding that clocks be stopped is certainly a cheeky command, as if to say, I am the only person in the world who matters now, so world, just stop your existence!

Second Stanza: Demand for World to Adopt Mourning Pace

Let aeroplanes* circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

The speaker then expresses his wish that airplanes fly through the sky, flinging the message, "He is Dead." This mourner desires "crepe bows" be tied around the "white necks of the public doves." And he wishes to place black gloves of the policemen to be replace the white ones.

The speaker is concocting a ludicrous visage of the world because he senses himself to have lost his balance. He desires that the world reflect his own feeling; thus, he demands that everything and everyone adopt his mourner's reality.

*The poet, W. H. Auden, was English; thus, the spelling "aeroplanes."

Third Stanza: He Was My Everything

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;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.

The third stanza finds the speaker announcing how important the dead man was to him: the deceased was the mourner's every direction, he was his every day of the week, and also his every time of day.

This suffering, mourning speaker is insisting that this dead man was, "my talk, my song." He was the speaker's necessary speech and also his entertainment. The speaker then flatly announces in deadpan fashion: "I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong."

The speaker has invested a great deal of his emotional life in this other person; therefore, he has now found himself totally lost and rudderless. He appears to be utterly devastated emotionally. But instead of merely expressing a state of sadness, this speaker employs the poetic device of hyperbole to both exaggerate and heighten the pain he is suffering.

Fourth Stanza: Appreciating Deep Distress

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 most sorrowful, exaggerated expression is dramatized in the final stanza: the speaker is now demanding an end to everything in existence. This pathetically mourning speaker wants the stars to stop shining; he demands that the moon and the sun cease shining. He commands the ocean to be "pour[ed] away," and he desires that the "wood" to be swept away.

The world no longer exists for this apoplectically miserable speaker, and his deep sorrow motivates him to sense that, "nothing now can ever come to any good." While the poem is easily accessible, it displays a very clever construction.

Although the speaker is calling for a situation that is impossible to achieve, his intensity of feeling makes his listeners/readers comprehend and even able to appreciate his deep distress.

The poems achieves an odd sense of fullness and even satisfaction despite the pain and suffering it evokes and also despite the impossibility of the commands. The world does not end for everyone, just because one individual has lost a loved one and descends into deep distress.

Because of the emphatic exaggeration and clever structural execution achieved by the poet, and the jaunty, somewhat self-deprecating impertinence of his speaker, readers and listeners can actually enjoy this poem, despite the sympathy garnered through the sorrow and anguish the piece has dramatized.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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