Sometime between 1922, when he started writing poetry, and 1938, when the poem as we know it was first published as Funeral Blues in The Year's Poetry, the pen of W. H. Auden left these words on a page:
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.
The muffled drum of the third line echoes through the rest of the poem, coming to hollow rest upon the last line of the fourth stanza. The sombre meter slows the reader, forcing us to keep pace with the funereal procession.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He is Dead,
Put crèpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
Auden describes an absurd world; a world crippled by mourning, profoundly broken. But grief has rendered the mourner's world impossibly absurd — a world without the departed is an incomprehensible reality.
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 four simple, short quatrains of the poem take us from the shock of discovery (Stop all the clocks...), through the funeral itself (Bring out the coffin...), the aftermath of burial (He was my North, my South...), and then on into the lingering loneliness and grief that stays for so long.
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.
Popular opinion seems to be that this song is about Auden's best known lover, Chester Kallman. However, Wystan didn't meet Chester until he moved to the United States in 1939, and furthermore, himself died two years before Kallman did.
Another strangely common theory is that this poem was written about Mussolini. Somehow, someone must have confused this poem with Epitaph on a Tyrant. Go figure.
However, the fact is, Auden probably didn't write this poem with anyone in particular in mind. The first known version, which was never given a title, had five stanzas, and was intended as a parody of a funeral poem. It was written for a play titled The Ascent of F6 by Auden and his collaborator Christopher Isherwood, and set to music by Benjamin Britten for a scene mourning a political leader. The version we know best, the four-stanza version, was sung by soprano Hedli Anderson for a cabaret. The first two stanzas are the same, but the ending is entirely different.
It was this revised version that Auden titled and published, first as a submission to The Year's Poetry anthology, but then later in his own collections as one of four poems under Four Cabaret Songs for Hedli Anderson in Another Time (1940). Later, Auden seems to have wanted to remove the title, publishing it as simply poem XXX in Collected Poetry (1945), then again as Song IX under Twelve Songs in Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957 (1966), nomenclature which was preserved for the posthumous Collected Poems (1976). It is this active un-titling by Auden that leads so many people to know it simply by its opening line, Stop all the clocks.
Perhaps the most famous reading of Funeral Blues is from Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). Read with respect in John Hannah's rich Scottish accent, this Hollywood appearance thankfully did nothing to detract from the solemn grief, the shattered despair, of the poem. Like all the greatest poetry, it is best when read aloud.
How ironic it is, therefore, that this elegy is so hard to read through.
A snippet of the original musical setting can be found in The function of song in contemporary British drama by Elizabeth Hale Winkler (University of Delaware Press, 1990).
Title/version history summary: wikipedia
Had I been able to find the text of the original five-stanza version, I would have reproduced it. If you have/find it, please let me know. :)