By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Funeral Blues’, the title often given to W. H. Auden’s poem that begins ‘Stop all the clocks’, is one of the most famous and universally loved lyric poems on the theme of loss. But this loss is related to a number of other prominent themes in the poem, which are worth exploring individually.
Let’s take a closer look at these themes, taking each in turn, in order to gain a fuller understanding of what makes Auden’s poem such a powerful depiction of loss.
Perhaps most obviously, ‘Funeral Blues’ is a poem about grief. One of the key themes of Auden’s poem is the way losing someone who matters to us can affect us deeply on an emotional level.
It should be noted that the poem is both about the private act of grief and the public expression of that grief. Although the speaker of the poem makes heartfelt reference to the person he has lost (notably in the poem’s third stanza, where he lists all of the things the dead person meant to him), he also refers to the collective act of mourning which often follows someone’s death.
Indeed, see the call to let the ‘mourners’ come at the end of the poem’s first stanza. After all, this is a poem called ‘Funeral Blues’, focusing on the public funeral which commemorates someone and marks their passing (even if this title was only added later).
Public Displays of Mourning.
But ‘Funeral Blues’ goes beyond the experience of most funerals in its display – desired or realised – of public grief. The poem is also very much about the desire to make the whole world stop in its tracks and pause to commemorate the person whom the world has lost.
After all, stopping all of the clocks sounds a rather Miss Havisham way of marking somebody’s passing, verging on the perverse. Cutting off the telephone to allow oneself some private time – and peace and quiet – in which to grieve sounds more reasonable, as does keeping the dog quiet, but once we leave the first stanza behind we find the speaker of the poem making increasingly extravagant and unrealistic requests concerning the kind of mourning the rest of the world should be engaging in.
For example, sky-writing was certainly established by the time Auden wrote the poem, in 1936 – it was first witnessed in Manhattan in 1922 – but expecting such a large-scale declaration of a loved one’s death is likely to strike most people as excessive. Similarly, expecting the ‘public doves’ to partake of this public grief is almost comically absurd.
There’s a good reason for this, however: W. H. Auden originally wrote ‘Funeral Blues’ – or stanzas for the poem that would later become ‘Funeral Blues’ – as part of a comic play he co-wrote with his friend Christopher Isherwood. The Ascent of F6 is about a mountain-climber who attempts an ascent of the titular mountain, F6, but the verses that begin ‘Stop all the clocks’ are recited in the play in response to the death of a politician, the Foreign Secretary James Ransom.
Indeed, the poem was largely intended as a parody of blues lyrics of the day, hence its colloquial title, ‘Funeral Blues’. It was only after The Ascent of F6 that Auden added new, more sincere stanzas to the poem that it became a more sincere expression of private grief. But this second stanza, involving the traffic policemen wearing black cotton gloves – they, too, are expected to join in with the mourning – was part of the original poem which was mocking overly ostentatious public displays of grief.
Of course, the poem in its final version does contain more heartfelt and straight-faced declarations of loss, and the third stanza is especially moving in this regard. For in this stanza, we realise that the poem is not about public displays of mourning for a public figure, but a more private and personal loss of a loved one.
Indeed, Auden himself was gay, and he may have added this stanza, beginning ‘He was my north, my south, my east and west’, in order to express, however tacitly, the idea that homosexual men can feel a depth of love – and therefore lost love – on a par with any heterosexual lover.
This may sound like an odd thing to have to ‘prove’, but it was by no means obvious in the 1930s, when homosexuality was still illegal in the United Kingdom (and would remain so until 1967). The (male) speaker of the final poem laments the death of his male lover, who meant everything to him.
The final stanza of the poem reinforces the intensity of the speaker’s loss. Nothing has any purpose any more, because nothing will ever be good again, now their beloved is no more. One may as well destroy the universe and everything in it: the stars, the earth, its oceans, and all of the ‘wood’ and various detritus left behind.
But the excessive emotion present in this final stanza also emphasises how important the theme of lost love is in the poem. After all, when we lose somebody, are we not prone to lose ourselves in exaggeration? The speaker’s statements ring true because we can all relate to the hyperbole that attends such a feeling of devastation, even though we know deep down that it is hyperbole – much as it began, deliberately so, in Auden’s poem.