What poems mean

Image: (RA) “In the largest text piece she has ever made, Tracey Emin RA reminds travellers to stop and take a moment in one of the UK’s busiest railway stations. The intimate words I Want My Time With You now stretch 20 metres across the famous Barlow Shed roof, hanging directly below the St Pancras clock.

Seamus Perry writes on the website of the British Library:

An introduction to ‘Stop all the clocks’ and its place in The Ascent of F6, co-authored by W H Auden and Christopher Isherwood.

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.

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…

…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…

…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 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.’…

…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’…”

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