Monday, April 4, 2011

Day Four - Funeral Blues - W.H. Auden


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 forever: 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 woods;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

---W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden's Funeral Blues

I’ve been itching to include this poem since I began We Convince By Our Presence over 3 years ago. I find Auden’s command of language, form, and, most startlingly, his emotions, to be rather spellbinding. Part of me hesitated to include this poem so early in the month, and on the heels of another poem about loss, but I couldn’t wait any longer. Funeral Blues is a tour-de-force poem; hundreds of thousands of people have heard this poem recited at funerals, which is rare territory for a poem. In researching for this brief analysis, I purposely did very little research. No, I did not discover the identity of the deceased loved one in the poem. Nor, did I hear the poem sung by Hedli Anderson or any other sopranos who had the poem put to music for them. And I certainly did not find an early first draft of the poem when it was a more satirical, five stanza mocking of the obituary-esque poems for politicians that had become trendy during Auden’s earlier years. Essentially, the only bit of interesting research I did seek out on this poem was about the title. Auden never formally titled this poem; it was often a numbered poem in his notebooks and only took its title in an edited edition of Auden’s poetry a few years after his death. This is interesting to note because without the title, who’s to say if the poem would be nearly as popular at funerals, and as a result who’s to say if the poem would be known worldwide like it is today.

From the beginning, Auden halts life and isolates readers from normalcy with his listing of stilted disturbances. When the clocks are stopped we are separated from time and when the telephones are cut off our ability to communicate is destroyed. The joy we might receive from music is commanded otherwise with “silence the pianos,” and even the dogs are made quiet “with a juicy bone.” In these images, Auden efficiently conveys a sense of immediate dread. He delivers upon this foreboding with the first stanza’s final line: “Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.”

The second stanza troubled me after many readings of the poem. It seemed to illustrate a rather bizarre attachment to possibly unnecessary details in the wake of tragedy and loss. Who wants airplanes sputtering above writing “He is Dead” in the sky above about their loved one? Why would anyone put “crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves?” And what compels us to remember that the policemen working traffic detail for a funeral are wearing “black cotton gloves?” The easy answer is to look at the poem’s form and tone, then assume that Auden needed help in preserving the poem’s rhyme scheme and abrupt tone that commands life to shift from its daily occurrences to a focused grief. The more probable answer is that Auden keeps his images public because they bring grieving into the domain where others are still living their lives.

The third stanza in Funeral Blues might be W.H. Auden’s ultimate stanza in his vast collection of poetry. After filing numerous requests to stop, cut off, let, and put the world on hold, Auden delivers an emotional pay off that is ruthlessly heart wrenching. Permanent and tied to direction, the geography allusion that begins the stanza illustrates just how much he’s lost. Beyond the physical geography and sense of direction lacking in his life, Auden has also had the purpose and routine of “working week” and the “Sunday rest” stripped from him. With place and purpose taken from him, Auden also notices that his communication (“talk” and “song”) and the possibility of closure or fresh starts (“noon” and “midnight”) are equally destroyed. “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong,” is the chilling declaration that ends the stanza and leaves readers sharing in the limitless depths of Auden’s loss.

How do you follow a stanza like that? Auden proceeds by giving away the world that he previously commanded to stop and grieve along with him. “Stars are not wanted now” and Auden believes it wise to “pack up the moon, dismantle the sun.” The physical world must be “poured away” and “swept up” because “nothing now can ever come to any good.” The final stanza caps the poem by driving home the concept of cleaning up the world when that person who’s gone was your whole world.


shane013a said...

Thank you for you're thoughtful study. Thank you for sharing it with us. It helped me to see how he saw this declaration of sorrows' need to be put in front of the world. Thank you.

Matthew A Kaberline said...

Thanks Shane for your kind words and I'm glad that you were able to take something from my study of Auden's masterful poem.