Analysis W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” or “Stop all the clocks”


I was recently reminded of this W. H. Auden poem. Here it is followed by a brief analysis.

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.

Little analysis is needed here. The first two stanzas describe the author’s mourning of a friend or lover. He doesn’t want to be disturbed by the world around him and his personal grief dwarfs the concerns of the world. By the third stanza, it becomes clear that he has lost a lover, someone who meant everything to him. The final stanza introduces a number of tropes about romantic love—sun, moon, stars, ocean—and rejects them all. They are powerless in the face of his devastating loss. A short but powerful poem. 

In the end, though, I reject its main message. None of us are this important and we must remind ourselves daily that we and our loved ones are mortal. Still, our cares and concerns may yet endure in others who will follow us.

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

7 thoughts on “Analysis W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” or “Stop all the clocks”

  1. I’m a great fan of WHAuden but I feel it suffers from a touch of exaggeration in comparison to for instance

    “ Whether his deeper sleep
    Lie shaded by the shakings of great wings
    Or the thoughts that hung the stars
    Or whether yet his thin and sodden head
    Confuses more and more with the low mould
    And finished fields of Autums that are old
    Who know s who hopes who troubles
    Let it pass
    He sleeps less tremulous less cold
    Than we who must awake
    And waking say alas”

    (excerpt from Wilfred Owen’s “Asleep”)

    But for me the sorrow of parting forever is expressed best by Wordsworth

    “ The Rainbow comes and goes
    And lovely is the rose
    But oh I know wherever I go
    That there has passed away a glory from this earth.”

  2. “A short but powerful poem.”

    Right up there with ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock’. Or any other.
    Auden was almost certainly not as gloomy in this poem as it appears. He was a poet; a writer; an artist. Poets/writers/artists are supposed to be gloomy, frequently. We do not have to presume that Auden was one hundred percent deadly serious in this or any other of his poems. Is it absolutely positively correct that “all the world’s a stage”? No. Are comparisons always odious? No.

    It can be as simple as negativity sells.
    If it bleeds, it leads. What is a ‘starving artist’? Someone who ‘lives’ their art. They suffer. An artist, hungry or glutted, is supposed to Suffer for Their Art, as suffering allegedly builds character through negative as well as positive experience. Yet artists can be happier than their art would lead one to believe.

    Popular songs: do we always take the negative lyrics of a popular song as evidence of the negative state of mind of the composer? No, but with some suicidal exceptions. Kurt Cobain. Or when Sid Vicious killed Nancy Spungeon and himself, the public knew his negativity was sincere. Sincerely homicidal.

    When Dylan sang about being stuck inside of Mobile with the Memphis blues again, maybe he wasn’t feeling negative at all. Possibly he was thinking about the joys of being in Vegas with a royalty check again.

  3. The poem captures well how one might feel, upon the death of a loved one.
    Yes, it’s a bit decadently self-indulgent, and perhaps even slightly self-mocking in its excess, yet still quite poignant–I’ll have to save this. I don’t know that he is ready to put a crown of rosemary on his head and stick it in the oven. Perhaps the garments he’s rending today, he’ll replace next month 🙂

  4. “I’m a great fan of WH Auden but I feel it suffers from a touch of exaggeration in comparison to for instance”

    Still think Auden’s is as worthy as any poem. The poem’s exaggeration is the whole purpose of it, to draw the attention of the reader in an exaggerated fashion. In that it succeeds. Also there’s a touch of humor in the cadence. Reminds me of a jingoist poem (or doggerel) from circa Auden’s time:

    …Keep our culture,
    Bring back the cat,
    kick out foreigners
    how about that…

    The above is serious, yet also slightly mocking. Such is how Auden’s poem strikes me: serious, but slightly mocking. When Auden wrote ‘Funeral Blues’, he was in a better mood than we infer from it; otherwise he wouldn’t have had the willpower to write.
    We take art too seriously, perhaps more than the artists themselves take their art. For all we know, Auden was thinking about what to have for dinner while he was writing it.

    Readers frequently prefer intense angst, as they also appreciate violent films. A positive poem written by Data of Star Trek would not be popular

    Nice is considered boring.


  5. Thinking about it, Auden’s poem isn’t mocking but, rather, rhythmically bouncy. So it reads as being mocking. The poem isn’t mournful, though: which adds to the illusion of its being mocking.
    Auden wasn’t being funereal, either; the likeliest explanation is that he simply wanted to write a great poem. And he used whatever quality he had at hand– in mind

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.