A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
For Valentine’s Day
Most people will recognize this poem as the one John Hannah so stirringly recited in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. It probably conveys the most powerful sense of loss of any poem and much prose that I’ve read.
It may seem odd to do a poem about death on a day dedicated to love, but that is really what lies at the end of a relationship’s arc. And in a strange way, the way a loved one is mourned and remembered is a distilled comment upon the history of the loving.
The steps of the poem builds and the first line, “stop the clocks” sets the somber tone and staccato rhythm. The complete desolation of the mourner is obvious, beginning with everyday sounds that are jarring. There can be no joy, no pleasure, not in music, not even for the dog. The only communication is that “He is Dead”, nothing else needs to be said or can be said. The middle of the poem is ceremonial: the drums, the coffin, the police escort. It is as the funeral of a king. That is how important the loved one was.
Doves are mentioned, the symbol of peace, but also of weddings and Noah’s messenger of dry land, of refuge. He was the mourner’s compass, now directionless, unmoored.It is hard to know how to go on after such a loss. The last stanza encompasses the universe, which is meaningless now. The stars are too bright, wishes cannot come true, the sky and ocean can be folded up like a stage set, everything may disappear, because the most important thing in life is gone.
What amazes me is that Auden was able to rhyme the lines, in the midst of their poignancy and without any artifice. The poem is vivid, sad and respectful.There is a despair that is overwhelming, a drowning in melancholy.
Funeral Blues is sometimes considered the beginning of a two part poem with Johnny, but they are also complete poems on their own. I don’t know the background of either, nor much about Auden’s life, but nothing I could learn would affect the perfection of this poem.
The world abounds in songs, poems and films about the beginning of love or being in it long enough to know you’ve met your perfect match. There is also lots about the end of a relationship, such as divorce or adultery. And even when the loved one has moved on to someone else, they are just somewhere else in the world and we can wish them happiness in our more generous moments. But death brings a finality that takes so much more than the memories it leaves. Auden’s poem crystallizes that moment, when the loss cannot be borne, only endured.
Random House, originally published 1938 in the anthology This Year’s Poetry
You may read “Funeral Blues” along with “Johnny” at the npr site .