Poetry Friday: 1940, part 4

Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (r...

Auden (on right) at about the time he wrote the poem; pictured with him is Christopher Isherwood, a writer with whom he had a close friendship/relationship at the time. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have moved slowly with The Grapes of Wrath because I’m savoring it (as, some of you will remember, I did with The Age of Innocence back in 2009 when I “discovered” Edith Wharton), but the vat of poetry to draw from in 1940 is getting shallow, and I need to get moving.  As a fan of W. H. Auden, whose verse has appeared here on Poetry Friday several times by now, I suppose it was inevitable that sooner or later I would take on what is now his most famous poem, thanks to its prominent role in a hit movie a couple of decades ago.  While he finished it and first published it in an anthology in 1938, it first appeared in a collection of Auden’s poetry in 1940—the book was called Another Time.  The poem’s name is a topic of much debate.  Some argue that Auden intended us to see it as a section of a larger poem called “Two Songs for Hedli Anderson” (or possibly “Song IX” in a poem called “Ten Songs”), while others feel the evidence is pretty strong that he meant it to be titled “Funeral Blues”.  In his collected poems published at the end of his life, when Auden was revising his past somewhat aggressively (cutting poems he no longer agreed with on a moral level, etc.), it appears simply under the heading of its first line.  Most of my generation, though, will know it simply as the poem Matthew reads for Gareth near the end of Four Weddings and a Funeral:

“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 in 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 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.”

Auden’s mourning here is a little strange for me, emotionally—honestly, one reason I didn’t deal with this poem back when PF was in 1938 is that I’m not as profoundly touched by it as I know a lot of other people are.  It was much more resonant for me in the context of the film (and the relationship those characters had) than it does here, where it feels just a little disembodied on the page.  Let’s take one of the moments that for me works both beautifully and weirdly—the opening salvo against the mundane, against the notion that there can be life and normality in a world where this man is gone.  This is great conceptually, but personally I find the “juicy bone” very distracting, the sort of detail that would come up in a comic strip or a children’s book, but jarringly out of place here.  Is that Auden’s purpose, or a slip?  It’s hard for me to tell.  Certainly what surrounds it is genius…the stopped clocks, the muffles on the drums, the imperiousness of grief in the command that the mourners come forth.  There’s a distance there—the speaker, who is clearly almost paralyzed by grief, is separated from “the mourners” as though he doesn’t want to admit the fact, as though he will not be taking his place beside them.  I like that element: it feels honest to me.

The second stanza wobbles most for me—I understand how absurdity can surface in a poem about grief (see my take on Federico Garcia Lorca’s ballad, which is full of this), but to me the absurdity is too measured, too restrained.  Lorca lets fly: the grief twists the whole world and everything explodes and distorts like a Dali painting, and the absurdity of the imagery is a reflection of the brokenness of the world.  Auden, here, by contrast, is too tame for me—the image of the circling aeroplanes feels juvenile, adolescent in its melodrama without signifying much.  The crepe bows are almost comical….totally wrong in tone, if you ask me.  The gloved policemen are hardly better.  Is he mocking grief?

I might draw that conclusion, but then he snaps back into almost prime Auden form, since the beloved as compass, as center of gravity, is totally believable.  The simple cadence, the repetition, feels sobbed out, and the terrifying thud of the last line—“I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong.”—is overwhelming to me.  In a few relatively simple phrases, suddenly it does feel like being inside someone who is collapsing on themselves, a person for whom grief is the straw that breaks.  I don’t have to know anything about the dead man to know what he meant.  And the fourth stanza works for me, despite its melodrama, because I can feel these images playing out in the darkness at the heart of this shattered human being: deep inside, where sorrow has driven them, the light cannot find them, and stone and wood, earth and water, are meaningless to them now.  The structure of the poem, weirdly, conveys the disastrous damage done to the structure of the speaker’s inner life.

So, here I am, the Auden fan who’s just fired a couple of shots into one of his most well-loved poems.  I wonder if I’m a bit too hard on the poem, or whether other people see what I do.  Given that a number of us have probably encountered the poem (either in the movie, or at a memorial service—since the film was released, this had a surge of popularity as a reading for such things), I’m hoping a few of you will speak up and say how the poem strikes you.  If I’ve missed out on the beauty of this work, and the way in which the whole thing really does work together, nothing would make me happier than having one of you help me see it.

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4 comments on “Poetry Friday: 1940, part 4

  1. Pam White says:

    I love Auden. In the years before he died I was privileged to see him a couple of times when he came to Boston. I studied him in college, I woke wondering what he was doing/ thinking. I followed his revisions and wrote papers about them. One of the main reasons I was so passionate – besides his turn of word – was that as a gay man he reflected my own discomfort with Place. Where do we fit in, how do we express, what are we to do? His careful and flagrant emotions were, to me, a shared universe of reaching out and mangled expectations.
    My reading of the “public dove,” the “juicy bone” reflects what I saw of the complexity of life lived unstated, misunderstood, unexpressed.
    Of course he was “out,” but out isn’t enough. Out doesn’t get you compassion. In my experience it begets curiosity, people picking through your things, asking, “is This what They do?” Emotional walls are there for all of us, gay and straight, but the eternal hiding and flaunting is wearying to say the least.
    That’s my take, thank you for putting out these questions, I enjoy your blog which I found because you put my poem, The Concord Art Association Regrets, in one of your pages one day, some time ago. And I thank you for that. Pam

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Pam, thank you SO much for your comment! I’m really glad to have your insights into Auden, and you connect his life to this poem in a way that feels really perceptive and opens up the poem for me. And, more than that, I’m so pleased to meet a poet whose work I’ve enjoyed—I fell for your sestina the first time I read it, and hundreds of high schoolers read it in my classroom as an example of the form (and a chance to reflect on art and rejection and formality and all sorts of other things). I cannot now recall where I found your poem, but I’m glad I did…and I’m glad it brought you here! I am always a little hesitant to post the work of a living poet, since I respect your right to distribute your work, but I liked yours well enough to take the risk: I’m glad it made you glad rather than otherwise. If you would ever like another poem of yours posted here, please feel free to send me an email (I’m at gmail, and the address is the name I post under here….my initials and my last name, in case it looks cryptic)—a number of poet friends of mine have supplied me with work that they were interested in seeing my take on (and the take of some commenters here), and I’d gladly read more of your work! Cheers!

  2. CFisher says:

    The poem glides along a little too effortlessly for me. Muses de Beaux Art, on the other hand, has lived with me in its final image for over 30 years. But who wouldn’t be satisfied with just a tenth of what Auden achieved with this poem?

    • jwrosenzweig says:

      Thanks for this—I think you’re totally right, both about its effortlessness and about Beaux Arts, which I tackled a few months ago (what a great poem!). But you’re right, my standard for Auden has gotten high enough that I’m taking him to task for some minor flaws and giving insufficient credit to the real beauty and honesty that’s present in the poem. If only we all could write so well! 🙂

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