1 January 2018 Susannah

W.H. Auden & Stop All the Clocks

W H Auden on cover of the Atlantic, Jan '57

Stop All the Clocks by W.H. Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden

Wystan Hugh 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 crêpe 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, my 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.

Wystan Hugh Auden was a poet, playwright and critic, who made a name for himself as a young poet at Oxford, where his contemporaries were John Betjeman, Stephen Spender and Louis MacNeice. He married a German woman to help her escape Nazi Germany, but he was gay and had a lifelong companion in Chester Kallman, who he met in the USA. Auden became Professor of Poetry at Oxford and had a distinguished career. The painting above by Stanley Meltzoff shows him in this role and appeared on the cover of The Atlantic in January 1957.

He gave this poem the name Funeral Blues, and it was written and published in 1936, with 5 stanzas. He followed it up with a 1938 version of 4 stanzas. It was originally written as a poem of mourning for a political leader as part of the verse play The Ascent of F6 which Auden wrote with Christopher Isherwood. The later version was written to be sung by soprano Hedli Anderson, in a setting by Benjamin Britten.

In the first stanza the bereaved speaker makes a series of requests and commands. He wants to stop all the sounds of everyday life and have only the muffled drumbeats that are associated with funerals. In the next stanza he asks for a more public display of grief – planes should write a message in the sky (skywriting had first been used in 1922 for advertising purposes), and public doves (does he mean pigeons, I wonder?) need black bows round their necks. He wants the world to mourn with him, and personal grief dwarfs all the concerns of the everyday world. In the third stanza it is clear that the man who has died was everything to the speaker – probably a lover – while the final stanza uses romantic tropes associated with poetry – moon, stars, oceans, etc, and rejects them all as unhelpful. The word ‘dismantle’ is used and there is a sense that the speaker’s life has been totally dismantled too. The catalogue of what should be done with these romantic symbols, ends with a direct and simple line: “For nothing now can come to any good.”

The poem featured in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral and as a result it shot to the bestseller lists (more than 20 years after Auden’s death). You can listen to John Hannah in a clip from the movie read the poem:

Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.

  Susannah Fullerton: HAPPY BIRTHDAY – W.H. Auden
  Susannah Fullerton: W.H. Auden is born

  Poetry Foundation: W. H. Auden
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Featured image credit- W H Auden on cover of the Atlantic, Jan ’57. By Stanley Meltzoff. Photograph by Roger Doherty, https://www.flickr.com/people/69611197@N00/
Body image credit- Wystan Hugh Auden by Carl Van Vechten. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1523835

Comments (10)

  1. Warwick Bruce

    I think the beauty of this poem, and as it is well explained in the movie, is that it perfectly encapsulates what we feel when a beloved dies. Unfortunately many of us who love English can not express our grief adequately to others. This poem does this with all the power, subtlety and nuance of English. Thank God for poets!

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, I am so grateful that throughout history people have been brave enough and talented enough to write poetry.
      This is such a beautiful and moving poem that totally captures the empty feeling of grief.

  2. Dr. Peter Kerry Morgan

    John Hannah’s reading is so definitive in the sense that it is an exquisite example of the enormity of grief, yet so simply and evocatively expressed. It is delivered in an almost muted way, yet so powerfully communicated, as the faces of the listeners convey. Thank you for allowing us to share a long-remembered moment once again.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Doesn’t he read it beautifully! You can just feel his grief and the simplicity of the poem and the reading are so moving. I must watch the film again!

  3. Kathleen Coote

    I love this poem and John Hannah’s delivery is superb. Wonderful to watch this video. Thank you Susannah.

  4. Joie

    Thanks for this quick exposition on this poem and poet. Every time I see that scene from the movie, I think…i should look up that poem etc. Now you’ve started me off – thanks

    • Susannah Fullerton

      It was such a moving scene in the film, wasn’t it. So glad I’ve started you off on a poetry journey. Happy travels!

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