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W. H. Auden's "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson"

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 "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson"

W. H. Auden’s "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson" appears in various editions of Auden’s publications. In W. H. Auden: Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, the poem was included in a series titled "Twelve Songs" as separate pieces numbered IX and X. The first song appears often under the title, "Funeral Blues" and also as "Stop All the Clocks."

Apparently, Auden wrote the lyric to be set to music by Benjamin Britten for the cabaret singer Hedli Anderson, who was the second wife of poet, Louis MacNeice. The first song was recited in the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Two Songs for Hedli Anderson

I
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 crêpe 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 for ever: 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 Song I from "Two Songs for Hedli Anderson"

II
O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; 'O Johnny, let's play':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O that Friday near Christmas as I well recall
When we went to the Charity Matinee Ball,
The floor was so smooth and the band was so loud
And Johnny so handsome I felt so proud;
'Squeeze me tighter, dear Johnny, let's dance till it's day':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

Shall I ever forget at the Grand Opera
When music poured out of each wonderful star?
Diamonds and pearls they hung dazzling down
Over each silver and golden silk gown;
'O John I'm in heaven,' I whispered to say:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O but he was fair as a garden in flower,
As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower,
When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade
O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart;
'O marry me, Johnny, I'll love and obey':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You'd the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

Commentary on Song I

Song I features a series of hyperbolic licks that mock the exaggerated, melodramatic mourning of some individuals after the loss of a love one.

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 her grievance as she 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."

The speaker 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 reader is alerted to the reason that the speaker wishes everything to cease. Life for the speaker feels as though it has stopped because her belovèd is now dead: "Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come."

The jaunty feel of the piece seems to run counter to the message. Two riming couplets give each stanza a cheerfulness that contrasts with such terms as "coffin" and "mourners." The speaker’s attitude toward her 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 her wish that airplanes fly, flinging the message across the sky: "He is Dead." This mourner desires "crepe bows" tied around the "white necks of the public doves." And she wishes to place black gloves on the policemen to be replace the white ones. The speaker is concocting a ludicrous visage of the world as she seems to have lost her balance. She desires that the world reflect her own feeling; thus, she demands that everything and everyone adopt her mourner's reality.

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 her: the deceased was the mourner's every direction, he was her every day of the week, and also he was her every time of day. This suffering speaker is insisting that this dead man was, "my talk, my song." He was the speaker's necessary speech and also her 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 emotional life in this other person; therefore, she has now found herself totally lost and rudderless. She 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 she 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; she demands that the moon and the sun cease shining. She commands the ocean to be "pour[ed] away," and she desires that the "wood" to be swept off the face of the earth.

The world no longer exists for this apoplectically miserable speaker, and her deep sorrow motivates her 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, her intensity of feeling makes her listeners/readers comprehend and even able to appreciate her 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.

The emphatic exaggeration and comedic effect garnered from those hyperbolic licks reveal the poem/song to be tongue-in-cheek parody. Instead of genuine suffering, the speaker is actually mocking the kind of mawkish mourning some people express at the loss of a loved one. Such maudlin mourning reveals that such mourners are really more interested in gaining attention than securing solace.

Commentary on Song II

With a similar theme as in Song I, Song II has its speaker expressing five different scenarios in which the speaker and her lover have engaged; yet from each scenario, the speaker’s lover "frowned like thunder and he went away." The line becomes a refrain, echoing the loss experienced in Song I, except for the fact that Song II simply claims the lover "went away," which may refer to death or simply that he left her for parts unknown

First Stanza: The Valley in Summer

O the valley in the summer where I and my John
Beside the deep river would walk on and on
While the flowers at our feet and the birds up above
Argued so sweetly on reciprocal love,
And I leaned on his shoulder; 'O Johnny, let's play':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

In the first stanza, featuring the first scene with the speaker and her lover, "John," the two can be seen walking by the river, with flowers blooming all around, while the birds are chirping merrily above their heads. The happy-hearted speaker suggests to her lover that they "play," which may or may not refer to sexual coupling. Lover John, however, offers his first response by "frown[ing] like thunder and [going] away."

The poem remains deliberately vague with remarks such as "let’s play" and that the lover "went away." Likely, the poet is cleverly allowing his readers to interpret the vagueness as they wish.

Second Stanza: Christmas at the Charity Ball

O that Friday near Christmas as I well recall
When we went to the Charity Matinee Ball,
The floor was so smooth and the band was so loud
And Johnny so handsome I felt so proud;
'Squeeze me tighter, dear Johnny, let's dance till it's day':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

The speaker then reports what happened at Christmas time at a charity ball. Again, she offers interesting details—the smoothness of the floor, the loudness of the band, her "Johnny so handsome" that she "felt so proud."

The speaker begs "dear Johnny" to squeeze her "tighter" and then let them dance until the next day. And again for the second time, her Johnny just "frown[s] like thunder" and "[goes] away."

Third Stanza: At the Grand Opera

Shall I ever forget at the Grand Opera
When music poured out of each wonderful star?
Diamonds and pearls they hung dazzling down
Over each silver and golden silk gown;
'O John I'm in heaven,' I whispered to say:
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

The third scene finds the two love birds at the "Grand Opera." Each opera star is magnificent as she exudes marvelous music, as she sparkles in the "[d]iamonds and pearls" and the "silver and golden silk gown."

Again, the speaker is overcome with happiness and joy, whispering to her lover that she is in heaven. And again, John responds with his "frown" and by leaving the hapless creature.

Fourth Stanza: Waltzing with a Perfect Specimen

O but he was fair as a garden in flower,
As slender and tall as the great Eiffel Tower,
When the waltz throbbed out on the long promenade
O his eyes and his smile they went straight to my heart;
'O marry me, Johnny, I'll love and obey':
But he frowned like thunder and he went away.

In the fourth scene, the speaker describes her lover with details revealing that he appears as pristine as a "garden in flower." He is tall like the Eiffel Tower and of slender build—a beautiful, handsome sight to the speaker as they waltzed. She adores his eyes lighting up a smile, and she pops the question, stating that she would "love and obey." However, Johnny right on cue simply frowns "like thunder" and goes away.

Fifth Stanza: A Dream and a Frown of Thunder

O last night I dreamed of you, Johnny, my lover,
You'd the sun on one arm and the moon on the other,
The sea it was blue and the grass it was green,
Every star rattled a round tambourine;
Ten thousand miles deep in a pit there I lay:
But you frowned like thunder and you went away.

In the final scene, the speaker is reporting a dream, in which she sees her lover with the sun one arm and the other arm with the moon. She states the usual colors of the ocean and the grass as blue and green, but then flips back up to the heavens, describing the stars as beating on tambourines.

The speaker then says she was lying in a pit that was "ten thousand miles deep"—and again the only reaction her hyperbole elicits from Johnny is his frowning "like thunder" as he again "went away."

Sources

Benjamin Britten: Cabaret Songs for Ms. Hedli Anderson

W. H. Auden - Hedli Anderson - Sir William Menzies Coldstream

W. H. Auden - Hedli Anderson - Sir William Menzies Coldstream

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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