Thursday, April 15, 2010

One More Thing Regarding Auden

You know that poem John Hannah reads in Four Weddings and a Funeral that turns you into a bawling mess every time you get to the funeral? Or am I the only one that still happens to? I also cry when Beth dies in Little Women. It gets sadder with repeat viewings. Anyway, that poem is called "Funeral Blues," and it's by our very own Wystan Hugh Auden. It's actually the third in a set of four poems entitled, "Four Cabaret Songs for Miss Hedli Anderson." (The poem I quoted from earlier was the second in that set.)

In spite of all the weeping, I have always been slightly suspicious of this poem as an expression of grief, because it's so melodramatic:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog barking with a juicy bone

The juicy bone is the first note that's off-key. In the following stanzas, everything is silenced but drums, a skywriter writes "He Is Dead" in the sky, ribbons are tied around the necks of doves, and traffic cops are made to wear black gloves. Eventually the planet, solar system, and entire universe are done away with. It is very sad and beautiful. It is a little bit funny. Do doves really require crêpe bows? Really?

It turns out the first two stanzas were written for a play Auden wrote with Isherwood called The Ascent of F6. F6 is a fictional mountain. (Not a bomber jet, as I was inclined to think.) Its name is presumably meant to evoke K2, which Auden's brother once climbed. He was a geologist. Fun fact! (Another fun fact: K2 is the second-highest and second-deadliest mountain in the world. You would think the deadliest would be Everest, but no! Annapurna has the highest fatality rate. On a related note, I happened to be the second of two K's at work and signed my e-mails as K2 for the duration of my employment. Every time someone died on K2 while I worked there, I felt responsible. But I digress.) In this play, the British government cajoles some climber to go up F6 and he gets killed from a surfeit of glory or something. I haven't actually read it. Point is, the poem that his distressed lover sings about this begins with the first two stanzas of "Funeral Blues."

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.

And then it takes a turn:

Hold up your umbrellas to keep off the rain
From Doctor Williams while he opens a vein;
Life, he pronounces, it is finally extinct.
Sergeant, arrest that man who said he winked!

Shawcross will say a few words sad and kind
To the weeping crowds about the Master-mind,
While Lamp with a powerful microscope
Searches their faces for a sign of hope.

And Gunn, of course, will drive a motor-hearse:
None could drive it better, most would drive it worse.
He’ll open up the throttle to its fullest power
And drive him to the grave at ninety miles an hour.
So, basically, the moving performance that Matthew gives over Gareth's coffin starts out as a parody of a state funeral. But Auden evidently decided that the poem really ought to take another direction, and replaced the last three stanzas with the two that everyone now knows:
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 for ever: 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.
To be honest, I'm not totally sure this part isn't slightly ironic, too -- all that changes is that is becomes more personal, less public. The drama is so extreme, it starts to sound like a parody of grief. I don't know what kind of jerk would write a poem like that, but I think you could argue that Auden might. Anyway, I find all of this terribly interesting and it serves as proof of two things I have long suspected:  (1) to the author, no work is ever finished, and (2) everything sounds deadly serious when read in a Scottish accent.


Anonymous said...

I find it interesting that you posted these pieces about Auden (who actually looks much worse than an unmade bed in my opinion) during National Poetry Month. Mere coincidence? I think not.

In any case, take a look at this link:
which is a story from NPR from Sunday morning (4/18) which refers to Auden several times, as he is the topic of a play. It includes a reading of one of his poems as well. I think the reader was Auden himself. I missed the intro to that that bit, but the voice seems to match the face in photo from your previous post - old and wrinkly.

Simon said...

In fact no, it was not a coincidence!

Thank you for the link to the NPR story -- I would have missed it otherwise. I like plays within plays, so it sounds quite intriguing to me.

Anonymous said...


I tried to find the original version for some time.

It is a hard thing to do :).


Simon said...

Happy to be of service! Took me forever to find it, too.