Considering that it's such a short poem, Auden's poem "Funeral Blues" has a pretty complicated history. Auden first wrote it in 1936 as part of The Ascent of F6, a play that he co-wrote with Christopher Isherwood. In the play, the poem was satirical, which means that it was snarky, mocking, and overblown. It poked fun at a dead politician, which is maybe not so classy, but something we're all guilty of now and then.
Then, in 1938, Auden reworked the poem and turned it into a no-longer-satirical cabaret with the help of a guy named Benjamin Britten, who wrote the music. Auden then published the poem in 1940 in his collection Another Time as part of the sequence "Four Cabaret Songs for Miss Hedli Anderson." (Anderson was a famous singer at the time).
But the poem has had an even more interesting afterlife. In 1994, it was featured in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral, which was a massively successful British romantic comedy. One of the characters in the film does a heartbreaking rendition of the poem at his lover's funeral. After the movie came out, interest in Auden from the general public skyrocketed, and publishers started re-issuing his poems right and left.
And since Four Weddings and a Funeral, the poem has been taken really seriously as a dirge (a mourning song, usually sung at a funeral). So even though it started as a mocking satire, Auden's changes to it and the culture's use of it have totally transformed the way we read it today.
We hope that you haven't experienced the loss of a loved one in your life. But chances are that you have. And that grief can be so terrible that you can't put your feelings into words.
"Funeral Blues" means that you don't have to. Auden captures the experience of grief, memory, devastation, and longing so poignantly that you don't need your own words to express how you feel. You have his.
Still, we wonder if words just aren't quite enough. Sometimes that grief goes beyond words, and into silence. That's something this poem addresses, too—the necessary quiet that comes with mourning. Time has to stop, the pianos must be quieted, the stars must be snuffed. All that's left when all these things are quashed is just the grief and this poem—a heartbreaking reminder of why we need poetry in the first place.
The Academy of American Poets
Check out this handy guide to Auden's life and work.
The W.H. Auden Society
Dude's got fans.
"Funeral Blues" Song
Soprano Alessia Mankovskaya puts her touch on the song version of your new favorite poem.
Dramatic Reading of "Funeral Blues"
Those rhymes really pop.
Young Auden and Isherwood
W.H. and his bud Christopher Isherwood in 1928, lookin' studious like they do.
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Check out the movie posters. Sure looks like a lot more fun than a funeral.
Can't get enough Auden? Read his complete poems here.
Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)
John Hannah recites "Funeral Blues" in this gut-wrenching scene.