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 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.
Everyone, at some point in their lives, will hear this poem read. It is often regarded as one of the most eloquent and poignant poems of mourning ever written. Published thus in 1938, the poem became famous in 1994 when it featured in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.
However, there is perhaps a certain irony to the poem’s use in the film – it was originally written as a satiric poem for Auden and Isherwood’s play “The Ascent of F6”. The first version, composed in 1936, had the same first two stanzas, followed by three different stanzas mocking the mourners of a political leader (Auden writes, for example, “Shawcross will say a few words sad and kind / To the weeping crowds about the Master-mind”).
Nonetheless, Auden decided to reuse those first two stanzas in a poem of true mourning, converting a musical comedy piece into a heartfelt lament. Perhaps he thought that, though the first two stanzas were conceived as hyperbolic expressions of false bereavement (“the trappings and the suits of woe”), they adequately reflected the pain he later experienced.
But what is it exactly that makes this such an excellent poem? Simplicity. It is because this poem is so direct and so straightforward that it captures perfectly the speaker’s sense of sincere and unembellished sorrow. In his poem “Jordan”, George Herbert warns against the arguably dishonest adornment of poetry with intricate metaphors and elaborate similes – this seems to be what Auden has attempted, creating a candid and heartfelt poem in the process.
This simplicity is seen not only in the form of the poem, an AABB rhyme scheme and a very loose pentameter, but also in the style, a succession of plain images and imperatives that convey a sense of melancholy. The first few lines, for example, suggest a desire to escape the noise and clamour (the clocks, the telephones and the barking dogs) of modern life, a desire often associated with mourning.
Perhaps there is also a sense of disassociation or even nonchalance in the poem, particularly in the second stanza. This is suggested by the repetition of the word “Let”, maybe implying the speaker’s desire to conceal his emotions as much as possible and distance himself from the deceased. This idea of distancing is especially insinuated by the abstract images of “crepe bows” and “black cotton gloves”, both impersonal images of mourning. We must, however, remember that the first two stanzas were written in the context of a politician’s death, explaining the more public images of grieving.
This impersonal element is immediately counteracted by the third stanza, which begins with the words “He was my North, my South, my East and West”. Of course, these final two stanzas often attract accusations of over-sentimentality, but in my mind they are poignant and moving in their encapsulation of a universal experience.
Again, it is the simplicity of the poem that creates its poignancy, a simplicity most evident in Auden’s melancholy words, “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.” The final three words of this quotation are particularly powerful in their brutally swift crushing of hope. The same can be said of the final words (“For nothing now can ever come to any good,”) which, though sentimental, are nonetheless touching.
I imagine a lot of people spurn “Funeral Blues” as cliché, and it’s no wonder: it featured in a hugely successful film and it’s possibly the poem most frequently read at funerals. But that’s no reason to dislike it; rather, its popularity is testament to its universal beauty as a poem and its encapsulation of a central part of the human condition.
There are two parts of the poem that I particularly enjoy and that I think demonstrate Auden’s skill as a poet. This is the first part: “Silence the pianos and with muffled drum / Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.” I mentioned earlier that the metre is relatively loose, but in the second line quoted it becomes a perfect iambic pentameter, reflecting the beat of the “muffled drum”. The strong final rhyme of “drum” and “come” also reflects a strong, steady drumbeat.
The second part comes in the final stanza: “The stars are not wanted now: put out every one; / Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun…” For me, it is the mechanical defeat of nature (putting out the stars like light-bulbs and taking apart the sun) that makes these images so interesting. Nature is normally associated with emotions (particularly love), and so this rejection of nature again reinforces the speaker’s dejection and desire to distance himself from his emotions.
I hope that I’ve shown why this poem is so excellent and why it is one of my favourites, whilst also giving you an idea of how it works in creating its powerful effects. If you enjoyed this poem, try reading the rest of Auden’s “Twelve Songs”!