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Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden

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 .

12 comments on “Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden

  1. Kae
    February 14, 2011

    I really enjoyed reading this, Jackie. I think you distilled the essence of the poem expertly. “Funeral Blues” really does express the feelings of a loved one, left alone, his compass lost forever.

  2. david
    February 14, 2011

    Yes, thank you for the rather touching observations, Jackie

    In similar typically Audenesque vein, but wth the usual piecercing wit and humour turned-on, is

    I think I was banging-on (no pun intended, today of all days…) the other week about TS Eliot’s late-flowering love, expressed in ‘To My Wife’ so won’t repeat it. Some critics think it’s soppy and slushy and unworthy of him, but I do find it extremely touching too.

    Getting a bit more prosaic (but not much), Thomas Hardy in contrast wasn’t too lucky in Love. His Emma Poems, different entirely in volume and style to Auden’s, nonetheless covered same ground as Four Weddings. He saw Love clearly enough, as this bit of his prose from the Madding Crowd I think superbly illustrates, but sadly wasn’t too situationally and emotionally able to celebrate fully that kind of union in his own life:-

    Theirs was that substantial affection which arises (if any arises at all) when the two who are thrown together begin first by knowing the rougher sides of each other’s character, and not the best till further on, the romance growing up in the interstices of a mass of hard prosaic reality. This good- fellowship—camaraderie—usually occurring through similarity of pursuits, is unfortunately seldom superadded to love between the sexes, because men and women associate, not in their labours, but in their pleasures merely. Where, however, happy circumstances permit its development, the compounded feeling proves itself to be the only love which is strong as death—that love which many waters cannot quench, nor the floods drown, beside which the passion usually called by the name is evanescent as steam.

    Beautifully-put, if I may say so, Tom, as only a most-accomplished poet could have put it !!

  3. david
    February 14, 2011


    sorry for the careless, rather Freudian slip – of course meant ‘..same ground as ‘Funeral Blues’ – and not to say ‘Four Weddings’ – synonymous rather so they are.

  4. Nikki
    February 14, 2011

    Lovely, Jackie. I’ve always thought of this poem as the terrible flip side of love – when you first fall in love the world might as well be silent but for this one incredible person that you’ve found, they’re all you focus on, all you want to see and hear, like being blinkered. But this poem takes it and turns into something heart-breaking. Never fails to get me.

  5. david
    February 14, 2011


    was trying to think of that particularly-poignant and appropriate-to-this-topic Emma poem – pasted here:-


    Why did you give no hint that night
    That quickly after the morrow’s dawn,
    And calmly, as if indifferent quite,
    You would close your term here, up and be gone
    Where I could not follow
    With wing of swallow
    To gain one glimpse of you ever anon!

    Never to bid good-bye
    Or lip me the softest call,
    Or utter a wish for a word, while I
    Saw morning harden upon the wall,
    Unmoved, unknowing
    That your great going
    Had place that moment, and altered all.

    Why do you make me leave the house
    And think for a breath it is you I see
    At the end of the alley of bending boughs
    Where so often at dusk you used to be;
    Till in darkening dankness
    The yawning blankness
    Of the perspective sickens me!

    You were she who abode
    By those red-veined rocks far West,
    You were the swan-necked one who rode
    Along the beetling Beeny Crest,
    And, reining nigh me,
    Would muse and eye me,
    While Life unrolled us its very best.

    Why, then, latterly did we not speak,
    Did we not think of those days long dead,
    And ere your vanishing strive to seek
    That time’s renewal? We might have said,
    “In this bright spring weather
    We’ll visit together
    Those places that once we visited.”

    Well, well! All’s past amend,
    Unchangeable. It must go.
    I seem but a dead man held on end
    To sink down soon. . . . O you could not know
    That such swift fleeing
    No soul foreseeing–
    Not even I–would undo me so!

  6. John Latham
    February 14, 2011

    What a beautiful post and even an extra poem, and several other poems accessible via the link also- I like the one by Emily D. Thanks so much, Jon.

  7. Pingback: Tweets that mention Funeral Blues by W.H. Auden « Vulpes Libris --

  8. rosyb
    February 14, 2011

    A different take on the old love theme and a different sort of choice for Valentine’s Day. I found this very moving, Jackie.

    My valentine’s day was rather less touching. The doorbell rang first thing and I answered it to this interflora woman absolutely swamped in the biggest display of flowers you’ve ever seen. My scaly old heart gave a little leap despite its cynical self.

    A head poked out of the fountain of shrubbery: “Sorry to do this to you but – would you take these in for next door?”

  9. Hilary
    February 15, 2011

    Thanks for this moving review, Jackie – I think it’s great to be reminded of love in all its aspects on St Valentine’s Day, including the pain of loss. Great commentary. It’s such a strong poem – almost defiant in some ways. I have to say, John Hannah reading it in Four Weddings makes my eyes prickle every time I see/hear it. A bravely sentimental scene.

    David I’m delighted to be reminded of Tell Me The Truth About Love – another favourite. Do you know the wonderful arrangement by Britten as cabaret song? It’s perfect.

    Thanks for all the comments, links and other poetic treats for the day.

  10. david
    February 15, 2011

    No, I didn’t know about that, Hilary, but I do now, many thanks (aka lifelong learning !)

    – refers, as they say in Whitehall

    (did you know that a fellow from Millom, one Montagu Slater was a big buddy of Britten and brought him much of the libretto for ‘Billy Budd’ ?)



  11. Hilary
    February 18, 2011

    No, I didn’t, so thank you for that piece of information, David. I must google him.

    Isn’t that setting great? It’s been in my head, cheering me up, all day. You’ve found a super performance of it, bringing out all the naughtiness – bit of a shame that the sound could be better. Thank you for that!

  12. Royal Baby
    August 7, 2013

    My brother suggested I might like this blog. He was totally right.
    This submit truly made my day. You cann’t consider simply how so much time I had spent for this info! Thank you!

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This entry was posted on February 14, 2011 by in Entries by Jackie, Poetry, Poetry: 20th Century, Poetry:literary and tagged , , , , .



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