Poetry 50: Funeral Blues by W H Auden

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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.

Image courtesy of www.pixabay.com

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

One thought on “Poetry 50: Funeral Blues by W H Auden

  1. I love this poem. It speaks very honestly about bereavement. It’s written in the first person, as spoken aloud by a narrator to a close-by listener, perhaps a mourner. It comprises four quatrains, each line of which follows (inexactly) a simple metric rhythm. This poetically contrived irregularity may be intended to suggest that the narrator is well used to following linguistic or social convention, but allows this to slip under emotional duress. The imagery is that of a middle class home of Auden’s time, with more than one clock (perhaps one in the hall), a telephone, and a pet dog.

    The first stanza is a stream of injunctions, delivered with little possibility of their being interrupted by a consoling word from a sympathetic bystander. The reference to clocks, telephone and the dog impart a homely feeling. The narrator is (probably but not necessarily) a woman, in her parlour, perhaps with the curtains closed as was customary around the time of a funeral in Auden’s day. There’s a wry, almost sardonic tone to the instructions, a touch of graveyard humour in the reference to the dog with its bone. True to life, and death-in-life.

    The second stanza continues in the same vein, except that interior attention moves outside, to the sky with its contrails, the doves, the policemen and the traffic. The heedless world goes on. The tone is now more whimsical, the birds are to wear black ribbons. This juxtaposition of the improbable with reality is so characteristic of the response of many to bereavement. Reality is capitalised: the words “He Is Dead” are like thuds on the coffin, or a spade against the fresh-turned earth.

    The third stanza is a cry of anguish as the immediacy of loss penetrates the defences the mind has mobilised against it. “He Is Dead” is no longer just a phrase but starkly and strongly real, an intense embodied experience. So this stanza is a lament, a psalm of grief, sealed by the words that, echoing “He Is Dead”, bring to a full stop to the song of grieving love: “I was wrong”. This stanza is for me the most heart-wrenching of the four. I feel energy rise in my chest when I read the first line, an energy that is buoyant and strangely light, presaging the dawn of hope. Tears touch my eyes.

    With a new freedom to enter a new paradigm of being, albeit still tinged with hopelessness, the last quatrain picks up the earlier flow of injunctions, but now they are vast, encompassing everything, stars, sun, moon, oceans, woods. The tone of domestic tidiness, dismantling the sun (as if it were the kitchen mincer) and pouring out the oceans (like a wash-up basin), add to the poignancy. The last line speaks of her exhaustion: it is drained of emotion except utter despair. The wave has crashed cathartically upon the shore, and will now flow back whence it arose, to swell again and break again. But – on the evidence – we believe the tide will ebb.

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