Friday, April 12, 2013

Funeral Blues

Wanted to post this simply because I love the popular version of this W.H. Auden poem. You've heard it, probably, certainly if you watched that gawdawful Andie McDowell chestnut Four Weddings and a Funeral.

It's this one:

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.

Public grief is an odd thing; you are choked to silence while all around you life continues, demanding somehow that you put your sorrow into words.

Many of us, most of us, can't do that. Sorrow often comes in silent tears, in inarticulate cries that always seem a sadly inadequate way of mourning the lost beloved.

So, it has always seemed to me, that Auden has done the rest of us a great mercy by doing it so well. To me these four short verses have always expressed the vast deeps of mourning in the way I would always want to. I don't have to grope for words; they are there, already written, and say everything I need to say.


Do you know that this wasn't the original version of the poem?

Not only that - did you know that the first appearance of this was as a rather peculiar little satire, a parody - I believe - of the sort of mawkish verse eulogies that were common in Auden's time whenever some public figure bit the dust?

The original version is difficult to find on the internet and I don't have a copy of the play but here it is; the original two verses are identical to the ones we know and then it veers...a trifle off-camber, let's just say. Here's what comes after verse two - the traffic policemen in black cotton gloves - in the original:

Hold up your umbrellas to keep off the rain
From Doctor Williams while he opens a vein;
Life, he announces, 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 the 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.


Not quite the same thing, is it..?

What interests me about this is how these two versions play with the way we perceive this poem, and how it speaks to the larger hiatus between every speaker and listener, between every writer and reader, between the person forming the idea and the one receiving it.

Did Auden ever even intend the final version of this poem as any sort of momento mori at all? Read the line "I thought that love would last forever, I was wrong." and you can't help but feel the certainty of loss; all our stories end in a death, don't they? Love, light, lasting...they will all come down to cold silence at the end. I have always felt that Auden had some iron-bound sorrow in mind when he wrote that line.

Or did he?

Was he still joshing when he revised this poem for its final appearance? Did Auden still intend a sort of snide comment on public mourning? Is this not about grief, but a nasty joke about extravagant grieving?

And how should that matter to us? Does the author's or the original speaker's intent matter when we read or repeat something in our own voice? Should it make a different, make us back away from using this as an expression of grief, or is our own reading - if that reading is a straightforward one without the original twist - the one that matters? Does a cynical joke become a genuine coronach if you cry it slowly and sadly enough?

I have to admit; I'm not sure.

I've always treated this poem as Auden's meditation on sorrow. But what if he was laughing at sorrow, and how should that change - if it does change - the way I read his words?

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