Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Grief for Lost Love

An Auden poem is a lesson in post-breakup depression

Funeral Blues

by 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 wood;

For nothing now can ever come to any good.

 

The poet is grieving, big time: he demands the pomp of a public funeral and then that the whole universe screech to a halt. Although he never says who has died, he gives a big hint when he says “I thought love would last forever, I was wrong.” He’s grieving for a lover, and since Auden, a man, was openly gay, it’s no surprise that the grieved-for-one is male. Maybe he’s just been dumped, and his lover isn’t dead, but gone. Either way, he feels he can never again be optimistic since his loss and pain proves that the universe is completely screwed up.

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Many people know this poem from the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral.” A young man recites it at his partner’s funeral, which is definitely sad. But Auden probably intended “Funeral Blues” to be funny.

Read these lines again as a cautionary tale of obsessive love that ends in deep depression. Auden has produced a clever description of what psychologists call “globalization”—a key marker of depressive thinking. Stop all the clocks: I’m sad. My romance got screwed up: Nothing now can ever come to any good. My pain colors the universe. You can’t be happy because I’m not.

One can imagine a caustic friend saying, "Get over yourself, get over Him, and laugh at the fact that you ever thought the sun rose and set from his rear end."

Let's take the poem bit by bit:

Lines 1-4 This is no regular day, with all the usual noise—ticking clocks, ringing phones, and barking dogs. It’s a funeral. The poet demands quiet. Daily life pauses: people leave work or school and stop thinking about their usual stuff. At this burial, there won’t even be the customary funeral piano march. It’ll be even more solemn, with only the sound of muffled drums.

The poem is in “couplets”—each two lines rhyme. Also, nearly all the rhyming words throughout the poem are short and simple, like “bone,” “drum” and “come” here. The simple rhymes sound like blues, music that arose among poor blacks in the South after slavery ended. The dog even suggests a farmhouse, a bluesy touch. But the drums—typical for a soldier’s burial-- and the hint of lots of mourners on their way show that the corpse was a public figure.

Lines 5-8 . Recall the pomp of the ceremony for Princess Diana or further back, President Lincoln, whose coffin was carried by train from town to town. This guy was really important! Airplanes puff out white letters saying “He is Dead” and don’t need to say who, because presumably everyone knows. All the preparations demanded —putting black crepe bows on white doves and black cotton gloves on policemen-- refer to mourning garb in the days when people wore black for months. However, the images are odd—maybe even comic--since these touches were never ordinary practices at public funerals.

Lines 9-12. Ah, it now emerges that the corpse at hand actually just ruled the poet’s personal life. For the poet—and probably no one else-- he was as magnetic as the force that guides a compass, and as demanding as time, before those clocks got stopped. Only a lover would be so important. The tone changes again with, “I thought love would last forever, I was wrong.” That could be a wail from a blues song about lost love, betrayal—not death. Maybe the poet was just dumped?

Lines 13-16 The poet demands Genesis in reverse. The universe dismantled. The images of packing and sweeping bring up the job of managing an estate, from handling the money to throwing out personal items or clearing out and selling a parent’s house.

The dumpee is completely in the dumps. Who needs a universe in which his love could be gone? Why live at all?

This is also a beautiful poem about inconsolable loss after a death. It's a sign of Auden's accomplishment and insight that it works both ways.

Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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