The poet calls for the clocks to be stopped, the telephone to be cut off, and the dog and pianos silenced. The coffin will be brought out to the mourners with a muffled drum and under the moan of airplanes that spell out the message, “He Is Dead.” Doves are to be decked with bows around their necks, and the traffic policemen are to wear black cotton gloves.
The poet thinks of the deceased as “my North, my South, my East and West,” his work and his rest, his noon and his midnight, his talk and his song. He incorrectly thought their love would last forever.
The stars, moon, sun, ocean, and forests, the poet writes, should be sent away; they are no longer needed, and “nothing now can ever come to any good.”
“Funeral Blues” has an interesting composition history. It originally appeared as a song in a play Auden cowrote with Christopher Isherwood called The Ascent of F6. In this form the last two stanzas were not included, and three others followed instead. The characters in the play were specifically invoked, and the play was an ironic statement on how “great men” are lionized after their deaths. The poem was then included in Auden’s poetry collection of 1936 (sometimes under the book title Look, Stranger!, which Auden hated). The poem was titled “Funeral Blues” by 1937, when it was published in Collected Poems. Here it had been rewritten as a cabaret song to fit with the kind of burlesque reviews popular in Berlin, and it was intended for Hedli Anderson in a piece by Benjamin Britten. It is also sometimes referred to as “Funeral Blues (Stop All the Clocks)” due to its famous first line. It is perhaps most famous for its delivery by a character in the English comedy/drama Four Weddings and a Funeral, in which a character mourns his dead lover.
The poem in the format readers usually see it today is a dirge, or a lament for the dead. Its tone is much more somber than early iterations, and the themes more universal, although it speaks of an individual. It has four stanzas of four lines each with lines in varying numbers of syllables but containing about four beats each. Auden plays with the form a bit in the poem, and critics debate whether or not this was a manifestation of his tendency to do just that—whether he was simply playing around or intended a larger point.
As with many of his poems, there is a mingling of the high and the low. This is in the style of a classical elegy, though it features informal language and objects of everyday life such as a telephone. This mingling, writes one scholar, “is a powerful modernist move, one which suggests that only by embracing the modern world can art come to terms with the complexities of human experience.”
The poem appears from the perspective of a man (seemingly the poet himself) deeply mourning the loss of a lover who has died. He begins by calling for silence from the everyday objects of life—the telephone and the clocks—and the pianos, drums, and animals nearby. He doesn’t just want quiet, however; he wants his loss writ large. He wants the life of his lover—seemingly a normal, average man—to be proclaimed to the world as noble and valuable. He wants airplanes to write the message “He Is Dead” in the sky, crepe bows around doves, and traffic policemen wearing black gloves. What seems unbearable to him is the thought that this man’s passing from life to death will be unmarked by anyone other than the poet.
In the third stanza the poet reminisces about how much the man who died meant to him. It is a beautifully evocative section that illustrates the bond between the two; note the theme of completeness in the language, which covers all four primary compass directions and all seven days of the week. Similarly, “noon” and “midnight” together cover, by synecdoche (parts standing for the whole), all hours of the day. The stanza, at the same time, reveals the tragedy of human life, which is that everyone must die and that almost everyone will experience being severed from a loved one; love does not, after all, last forever in this world.
In the fourth stanza the poet’s anguish rings out even more fervently. Here he demands that Nature heed his grief, calling her to extinguish the stars and the moon and the sun and get rid of the ocean. He wants the world to reflect the emptiness within him. Human memorials to the dead will not be sufficient. There is no hope at the end of the poem; the reader is left with the very real and very bitter sense of the man’s grief, since no end can be achieved without the poet’s lover.