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.
(In this stanza, the narrator is asking for standard funeral conventions of his time to be followed.)
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.
(Here he is asking for over-the-top, impractical public displays of grief.)
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.
(And here he reveals what the deceased truly meant to him.)
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.
(Finally, he articulates the depth of his grief and his vision of what a world without his beloved should look like.)
W.H. Auden is 20th century English poet and literary giant, someone who might show up as an answer to a Jeopardy question. I don’t often relate to his work, but this poem is the exception.
I thought of “Funeral Blues” when I was writing about John O’Donohue, but reading it again brought to mind my many friends who have lost important men in their lives: husbands, fathers, sons. This poem perfectly captures the grief I’ve witnessed in their faces, bodies, eyes, lives. For the most part, their losses were unexpected and so too was the level of disorientation that affected them for months, and sometimes even years, afterwards. The loss of an essential loved one causes us to lose something essential within ourselves as well. How could it not if we share hearts, history and sometimes even DNA?
How does life go on and anyway, why does it?
It takes a long time to answer those questions and each of us must come to our own conclusions. We have to navigate our own way through the unfamiliar topography that is our life after a great loss. Who knows their way around a world with starless nights and sunless days, an oceanless shore and treeless woods? Sometimes, poetry is our best map and guide in those liminal spaces, when we exist between two worlds and find our home in neither of them. What a blessing to have good friends like Auden and O’Donohue, Rilke, Rumi and others to help us find our way.
This poem was brought to widespread popularity by its use in the movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral. If you want to hear a dramatic reading of the poem by Scottish actor, John Hannah, tune in here.