‘Funeral Blues,’ also known as ‘Stop all the Clocks,’ is arguably Auden’s most famous poem. It was first published in ‘The Year’s Poetry’ in 1938.
The poem is a morose, sad elegy that wonderfully describes the feelings associated with grieving. It’s filled with clever twists and heart-wrenching statements that give it a real poignancy, features that may explain the poem’s enduring popularity. It showcases Auden’s poetic ability to relate to human emotions.
Explore Funeral Blues
For someone like the speaker who has suffered a loss, the world is transformed. But to everyone else, nothing changes. Time doesn’t slow down and no one cares what’s happening. The indifference of the world plagues the speaker in this poem. They plead with the world to feel as they do, understand his grief, and even participate in it.
You can read more poetry from W.H. Auden here.
There are several important themes in W.H. Auden’s‘Funeral Blues’. These include grief/silence, isolation, and death. All three of these themes are tied together within the text as the speaker discusses what grief over the death of a loved one is like and how it separates one from the rest of the world. In the first lines, the speaker demands that everything quiet down and that all the “mourners come” to mourn. The speaker seeks out transformation in the world but is unable to find it. They are isolated in their loss and no one adequately respects that fact.
Form and Tone
‘Funeral Blues,’ is a classic elegy. While the narrator does not go into specific detail about the loss suffered, the feelings of loss are very present. The text is referenced often in film and TV (such as in Four Weddings and a Funeral and Gavin and Stacey). Auden structured the poem in four, four-line stanzas known as quatrains. These quatrains follow an AABB rhyming pattern, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit. It is an atypically somber poem and is, therefore, a popular reading at funerals. Most of the poem is delivered through an omniscient, anonymous narrator. But as the lines go on, the amorphous loss becomes more personal the speaker makes use of first-person pronouns.
Within ‘Funeral Blues’ Auden makes use of several poetic techniques. These include caesura, anaphora, alliteration, enjambment and hyperbole. The first, caesura, occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. For example, the fourth line of the first stanza, as well as the fourth line of the third stanza.
Alliteration, another important and common technique within Auden’s works, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For instance, in the first line of the first stanza: “the clocks, cut off” or “working week” in the second line of the third stanza.
Auden also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This appears sporadically throughout the text, for example, “Let” at the beginning of lines one and four of the second stanza and “My” at the start of lines two and three of the third.
Towards the end of the poem, hyperbole becomes quite important. It is an intentionally exaggerated description, comparison or exclamation meant to further the writer’s important themes, or make a specific impact on a reader. the last lines ask the impossible, that one should “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun” and put out the stars.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. It can be seen throughout the poem, but a few examples include the transition between lines three and four of the first stanza and line one and two of the second stanza.
Analysis of 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.
What a powerful way to start a poem. The idea of stopping the clocks serves two purposes here. First, 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 is an ever-present theme of stopping sounds and promoting silence, hence preventing the dog from barking. In fact, that seems to be the overarching theme of this first stanza. Silence is the order of the day. What is interesting is the idea of silencing the piano with a muffled drum. I think the drum referenced here isn’t an actual drum. Rather, it 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 elicit the experience of a drum beat. Interestingly, the stanza ends with the phrase “let the mourners come,” an invitation of sorts.
Let airplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message “He is Dead”.
Auden is meticulously clever in the language that he uses. Once again in this stanza, he makes reference to noises. This time though he describes the airplanes as “moaning”. The first thing of importance to note is that the sound of the word “moaning” sounds a lot like the word mourning. But, it is also a noise associated with death or dying. This clever word choice is a feature of Auden’s poetry and can be seen throughout ‘Funeral Blues’.
The next line has an element of the surreal about it. Suggesting that a plane could use its chemical trails to write anything as complex as that is pretty unrealistic. I think this line is more about displaying the narrator’s feelings though. There is an element of “for all I care” about this line as if the narrator doesn’t want to deal with anything and just everything to go away as quickly as possible.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
In the next line of ‘Funeral Blues,’ the narrator evokes the image of the “dove”. The dove is a powerful icon, especially from a religious standpoint. It represents purity and peace, drawing us back to the narrator’s desire for quiet. What is notable though is this is slightly subverted. Auden uses “public doves.” Could he be referencing the common pigeon through this phrase? Is the suggestion here that he wants a commonplace animal to dress formally and pay its respects, to signify that the loss of this person is a loss to everybody. The next line 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 of ‘Funeral Blues’ talks explicitly about what the person they are mourning meant to them. The opening line references the points of a compass and carries the suggestion of a loss of direction. The speaker is lost, physically and emotionally, without their partner.
The next line furthers the importance of the deceased. It is the narrator’s way of saying that this person meant everything to them. The third line emphasizes this. By stating they have lost their “talk” and their “song,” they are once again bringing the poem back to the theme of silence that 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. 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 the final stanza of ‘Funeral Blues’ is among the more striking in the entire poem. It describes the listless feeling one experiences when everything seems pointless and irritating. The stars represent hope and love and the narrator has no interest in these things at this point. Their grieving has put them in a, figuratively, very dark place. The theme of darkness continues as they then talk about dismantling the heavens. They truly feel that they cannot continue now they have lost their loved one.
The melodrama of the narrator’s emotions in ‘Funeral Blues’ 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 recognize his importance as one of the most renowned poets of the twentieth century they are often critical of his style and of his importance. Auden’s poems cover a wide range of topics from politics, religion, love, and social issues. He has a large back catalog of work and also wrote plays/films as well as poems. He was also a prolific essayist.