An introduction to 'Stop all the clocks'

'Funeral Blues', also known as 'Stop all the Clocks', is perhaps now most famous for its recitation in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, but its first audience encountered it as part of a play. Seamus Perry discusses the poem and its place in The Ascent of F6, co-authored by W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

‘Stop all the clocks’: a funeral poem

What poems mean can often be significantly shaped by the place where they appear, and Auden's well-known poem, ‘Funeral Blues’, or ‘Stop all the clocks’, is a nice example of this. The poem is principally famous for modern audiences thanks to its appearance in the successful romantic comedy movie Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), which starred Hugh Grant and was scripted by Richard Curtis; the verses are recited in the film by Matthew (played by John Hannah) at the funeral of his beloved, flamboyant partner Gareth. Hannah reads the lines falteringly and with due poignancy: it is a touching portrayal of an intimate bereavement, and there is not a dry eye in the house. In the wake of the film’s extraordinary success, the publishers Faber moved swiftly to produce a little paperback book called Tell Me the Truth About Love, which contained 10 of Auden’s poems including ‘Funeral Blues’. The cover featured an image of Hugh Grant at his most fetching, as well as the name of the film in the flowery script used on the posters, and this obviously made up an enticing offer since, according to Edward Mendelson, Auden’s greatest scholar and his literary executor, the pamphlet sold some 275,000 copies. Something had hit a nerve.

Another Time by W H Auden

Another Time by W H Auden

Substantially modified version of the song later appeared in Auden’s collection Another Time in 1940.

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The original poem

But the poem’s first appearance was in a very different setting: it appeared in a play co-authored by Auden and Christopher Isherwood called The Ascent of F6, and there the resonances of the poem were something other than the heartfelt elegy of Hannah’s (excellent) performance. The Ascent of F6 is a play about the ways in which individual acts of human behaviour, motivated by the most intensely private obsessions, can be co-opted by political power for its own ends. The ‘F6’ of the title is a mountain, famously difficult to climb, at the heart of a distant land that is contested between two great imperial powers, Britain and Ostonia: whichever side manages to claim the summit first will have effectively asserted their territorial claim over the region. The mountaineer who is the protagonist of the play, Michael, is asked to take on the expedition by his antipathetic brother Sir James, a high-ranking civil servant in the Colonial Office, and at first he refuses angrily; but belatedly, and full of self-hatred at his weakness, he succumbs to the invitation at the urging of their mother. The decision is taken, that is to say, not through Michael’s commitment in furthering the good of the Empire, but out of a complicated mixture of emotions that are entangled with sibling rivalry, filial guilt and bitter self-recrimination. The expedition is a catastrophe. The play grows more and more phantasmagoric as it progresses, and shortly before Michael struggles his way alone to the summit (where, dying, he has a vision of his mother) he somehow manages to kill his brother James. ‘What have you done? What have you done? / You have killed, you have murdered her favourite son!’ chant the unsympathetic chorus.

But no sooner has this private, violent act of psychological self-assertion been accomplished than all the forces of the establishment swing into operation, claiming Sir James back for the realm of politics and matters of state, memorialising him in the public voices of formulaic obituary:

The whole of England is plunged into mourning for one of her greatest sons … At this hour, the thoughts of the whole nation go out to a very brave and very lonely woman in a little South country village … He was a brave man and courage is the greatest quality a man can have.

And it is at this point that two of the play’s proponents of what Auden would later call ‘international wrong’ (‘September 1, 1939’) sing an elegy for the dead Sir James: ‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, / Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone’.

The words are the same, but the feeling could not be further from the personal pathos of the poem in Four Weddings: here, the atmosphere is surreal, full of disgusted political disillusion, and all the professions of emotion are corrupted by an entanglement with serious power. The poem is a ragged, satirically pantomimic version of the ostentatious trumpery involved in a state funeral: ‘Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead / Scribbling on the sky the message: He is dead.’

Auden has in mind something like Tennyson’s great ‘Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington’: ‘Let us bury the Great Duke / To the noise of the mourning of a mighty nation,’ but the complete oratorical accomplishment of Tennyson’s verse is here breaking down into stumbling rhythms and ludicrously unheroic gestures. The last three stanzas in the F6 text refer to characters in the play killed during the disastrous attempt on the mountain:

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 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.

The Ascent of F6 by W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood

The Ascent of F6 by WH Auden and Christopher Isherwood

Extract from Auden and Isherwood’s 1936 play The Ascent of F6, including the lyrics for the song ‘Stop All the Clocks’.

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'Some Notes on Auden's Early Poetry' in New Verse, 1937

'Some Notes on Auden's Early Poetry' in New Verse, 1937

Christopher Isherwood asserts that ‘Auden is a musician’ in this New Verse article on the poet’s themes and influences.

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The Ascent of F6 was performed by the Group Theatre, an experimental company with which Auden had been involved since 1934 when they had put on his left-wing play The Dance of Death. The music for the show was provided by the 22-year-old English composer Benjamin Britten, and his setting of the lines sung after the death of Sir James was a particular success. Britten cast the lines as blues (as Auden’s stage direction stipulates), a form of music which was an American import, recently popularised by Noël Coward’s ‘Twentieth Century Blues’, the hit of the epic stage show Cavalcade, which had run for almost a year between 1931 and 1932 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, and was subsequently made into a film. As it happens, the politics of Coward’s play pointed in the opposite direction to Auden’s, but both deployed the blues to striking effect; and Britten’s setting brings out an emotional complexity that you might not have expected from the knockabout quality of Auden’s lines as they appear on their own. The musicologist Donald Mitchell describes the impact made by this rich collaboration: ‘For a few timeless and ironic rather than satirical minutes, the feelings proper to the cabaret song and the funeral dirge are experienced simultaneously through the unifying agency of the music.’

Benjamin Britten's music for The Ascent of F6, a play by Auden and Isherwood

Benjamin Britten's music for Auden and Isherwood's play The Ascent of F6

This extract shows the music Benjamin Britten composed for W H Auden’s song ‘Stop All the Clocks’.

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Pamphlet advertising the Group Theatre

Pamphlet advertising the Group Theatre

Pamphlet advertising the Group Theatre, the company who performed the plays by Auden and Isherwood.

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Making a song of it

The music Britten wrote for the show evidently made a great impression on its original audience, not least because of its principal performer, a hugely talented singer called Hedli Anderson, whom Auden had known since the production of The Dance of Death, in which she had appeared. Britten was as struck by her as everyone else seems to have been; and he and Auden determined to write her a dozen cabaret songs, of which four have come down to us: ‘Funeral Blues’, ‘Johnny’, ‘Tell Me the Truth about Love’ and ‘Calypso’. Auden printed the songs together in his 1940 volume Another Time: gathered under the title ‘Four Cabaret Songs for Miss Hedli Anderson’, they form part of the second section of the three into which the volume is divided, ‘Lighter Poems’. The heading is a nice one: Auden, who edited The Oxford Book of Light Verse (1937), is not offering us ‘Light Verse’ exactly, merely ‘Lighter’.

Auden evidently decided to rework the poem for Anderson to use independently. He kept the first two stanzas, but dropped the last three which made reference to named characters, substituting instead the two stanzas that are now familiar to us: ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West ...’. These lines draw less on the real traditions of blues than on the witty poems of the American songwriter Cole Porter, whose ingenious lyrics, often in the form of fantastical lists (‘You’re the tops, you’re the Colisseum, / You’re the tops, you’re the Louvre Museum’), Auden emulated in ‘Tell Me the Truth about Love’ and other poems. But the feelings in ‘Funeral Blues’ are evidently very much other than merely larky; and in the new context of the volume Another Time, Auden is able to tune into the wavelengths of some of the neighbouring poems to complicate what might have seemed the lightness of their cabaret genre. The capacity of love to transform a life is keenly felt in many Auden poems, but often the true immensity of love is learned through realising the enormity of its absence: the revised text of ‘Funeral Blues’ has a striking line that confesses such defeat: ‘I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong’. What happens when love fails is something contemplated by many of the poems in Another Time – grotesquely in the morbid ballad stories of ‘Miss Gee’, ‘Victor’ and ‘James Honeyman’; with psycho-analytical diagnostic tools in the pen portraits of Edward Lear and A E Housman; with strangely stoic resignation in the opening poem’s portrait of ‘the expressive lover’ who discovers ‘Fresh loves betray him, every day’; or with epochal resonance in ‘September 1, 1939’, where we are told ‘We must love another or die’, a line which Auden came to dislike for its portentous statement of an untruth (for, he said, we will die anyway). The volume also contains ‘Refugee Blues’, a song of displacement voiced by a German Jew; and, as though to imply a predicament that is universal and not specific to any one historical crisis, ‘Roman Wall Blues’, in which a soldier stationed on Hadrian’s Wall laments his loveless, uprooted lot in gruff, taciturn lines: ‘I’m a Wall soldier, I don’t know why’.

The impossibilities poignantly urged upon the universe in ‘Funeral Blues’ – ‘Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun’ – call to mind the similar catalogue of surreal not-happenings of which the romantically deluded lover sings in ‘As I walked out one evening’, 35 pages earlier in the book:

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.’

This lovely exuberance is checked by the voice of experience: ‘O let not Time deceive you, / You cannot conquer Time’. From the outset, ‘Funeral Blues’ is the less deceived. ‘Pour away the ocean and sweep up the woods’, it ends, ‘For nothing now can ever come to any good’. The closing rhyme, which could so easily have come good (if it had had the singular form of ‘wood’ to work with), misses its chance, as though momentarily distracted by grief.

  • Seamus Perry
  • Seamus Perry is a Fellow of Balliol College and an Associate Professor in the English Faculty, University of Oxford. He is the author of books and articles about, among others, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Matthew Arnold, T S Eliot, and W H Auden.

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