Funeral Blues is arguably Auden’s most famous poem. It is a morose, sad elegy that describes wonderfully the feelings associated with grieving. It’s filled with clever twists and heart wrenching statements that give it a real poignancy, perhaps this explains the poems enduring popularity. It wonderfully showcases Auden’s innate ability to relate to human emotions. The poem references the idea of silence throughout.
Form and Tone
Funeral Blues, it may not surprise you to discover is a classic elegy. It isn’t specific but it details the feelings of loss felt by the narrator. I would class it as one of the most famous poems and is referenced often in film and TV (for instance in four weddings and a funeral and Gavin and Stacey) It is presented in four stanzas each of which is four lines long and follows an AABB rhyming pattern. It is an atypically sombre poem and is a popular reading at funerals (it is essentially the funeral equivalent of the Corinthians bible verses that are read at weddings) Most of the poem is delivered through a omniscient, anonymous narrator. But the third stanza bucks this trend and seems more personal.
Funeral Blues Analysis
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.
What a powerful way to start a poem. The idea of stopping the clocks serves two purposes here. Firstly it stops the noise that they potentially make, the annoying ticking sound, but also it signifies the stopping of time. When somebody dies their time is said to be up and this represents that. That is followed up with “cut off” the telephone, the poet could have used the word disconnect, but the idea of being “cut off” acts as a subtle double entendre.
There seems to be a theme of stopping sounds and promoting silence, hence the preventing the dog from barking, in fact that seems to be the overarching theme of this first stanza. Silence seems to be the order of the day. What is interesting is the idea of silencing the piano with a muffled drum. I think the drum being referenced here isn’t an actual drum but that this is a representation of the footsteps of pole bearers as the next line in the stanza references the arrival of the coffin. It is feasible the marching action performed by these men could illicit the idea of a drum beat. Interestingly the stanza end with the line let the mourners come. This seems to be an invitation of sorts.
Let airplanes 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.
Auden is meticulously clever in the language that he uses. Once again in this stanza he makes reference to noises, but he describes the airplanes as “moaning” this, firstly sounds a lot like the word mourning but also is a noise associated with death or dying. This clever word choice is a feature of Auden’s poetry and can be seen throughout this poem. The next line has an element of the surreal about it. Suggesting that a plane could use its chem. trails to write anything as complex as that is pretty unrealistic, but I think this line is more about displaying the narrators feelings. There is an element of “for all I care” about this line. Like the narrator just doesn’t want to deal with things and just wants them to go away.
In the next line the narrator evokes the image of the Dove. The Dove is a powerful icon, especially from a religious stand point. It represents purity and peace which draws us back to the narrators desire for quiet. What is notable though is this is slightly subverted, Auden uses “public doves” is he referencing the common pigeon by doing this? Is the suggestion here that he wants a commonplace animal to dress formally and pay its respects, to signify that this persons loss is a loss to everybody. The next line certainly suggests so as it recommends that even the traffic police should be in mourning. Wearing black gloves would be a sign of respect to the departed.
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.
This stanza bucks the trend set by the previous two as the narrator talks explicitly about what the person they are mourning meant to them. The opening line references the points of a compass the suggestion of these being missing effectively says that the narrator is lacks direction with their loved one. It suggests they are lost without them.
The next line furthers the importance of this person that has passed away. It is the narrator’s way of saying that this person meant everything to them. The third line emphasises this. By saying they have lost their talk and their song they are once again bringing the poem back to the theme of silence which has reoccurred throughout the poem. It is clear from the last line of the stanza that the narrator loved the person they are referencing dearly and that they thought that emotion would last forever but now it has clearly been replaced by grieving.
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 opening line to this stanza is amongst the more striking in the entire poem. This describes the listless feeling that you just want everything to go away. The stars represent hope and love and the narrator just has no interest in these things now. Their grieving has obviously put them in a very figuratively dark place. This theme continues as they then talk about further dismantling the heavens. This gives the impression that this person is done with life. They truly feel that they cannot continue now they have lost their loved one.
The melodrama of the narrator’s emotions peaks with the penultimate line as they suggest doing away with the oceans. It is clear that they feel that now the person that they are mourning has been removed from their lives that they will never enjoy happiness again. This is extremely powerful and emotional material and anyone who has suffered a tragic loss will no doubt be able to relate to the content of this poem.
About W.H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden was born in England but later became a citizen of the United states. He is a divisive figure although most scholars recognise his importance as one of the most renowned poets of the twentieth century they are often critical of his style and of his importance. His poems cover a wide range of topics from politics, religion, love and social issues. He has a large back catalogue of work and also wrote plays/films as well as poems. He was also a prolific essayist.
Considering that it's such a short poem, Auden's poem "Funeral Blues" has a pretty complicated history. Auden first wrote it in 1936 as part of The Ascent of F6, a play that he co-wrote with Christopher Isherwood. In the play, the poem was satirical, which means that it was snarky, mocking, and overblown. It poked fun at a dead politician, which is maybe not so classy, but something we're all guilty of now and then.
Then, in 1938, Auden reworked the poem and turned it into a no-longer-satirical cabaret with the help of a guy named Benjamin Britten, who wrote the music. Auden then published the poem in 1940 in his collection Another Time as part of the sequence "Four Cabaret Songs for Miss Hedli Anderson." (Anderson was a famous singer at the time).
But the poem has had an even more interesting afterlife. In 1994, it was featured in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, which was a massively successful British romantic comedy. One of the characters in the film does a heartbreaking rendition of the poem at his lover's funeral. After the movie came out, interest in Auden from the general public skyrocketed, and publishers started re-issuing his poems right and left.
And since Four Weddings and a Funeral, the poem has been taken really seriously as a dirge (a mourning song, usually sung at a funeral). So even though it started as a mocking satire, Auden's changes to it and the culture's use of it have totally transformed the way we read it today.
We hope that you haven't experienced the loss of a loved one in your life. But chances are that you have. And that grief can be so terrible that you can't put your feelings into words.
"Funeral Blues" means that you don't have to. Auden captures the experience of grief, memory, devastation, and longing so poignantly that you don't need your own words to express how you feel. You have his.
Still, we wonder if words just aren't quite enough. Sometimes that grief goes beyond words, and into silence. That's something this poem addresses, too—the necessary quiet that comes with mourning. Time has to stop, the pianos must be quieted, the stars must be snuffed. All that's left when all these things are quashed is just the grief and this poem—a heartbreaking reminder of why we need poetry in the first place.