The poem is called "Funeral Blues," and Shmoop thinks that's the perfect title. After all, it's a sad song (blues) about a dead guy (funeral). Done and done.
As we discuss in our "In a Nutshell" section, the song was set to music before it was published as a poem. Sure, it may not be bluesy in a musical sense—it really sounds much more operatic to us—but the title definitely draws out the poem's connection to music, and the blues comes from the emotion of it, rather than the rhythms. To get a sense of what we mean, check out a musical rendition of the poem.
We think you got this one. This poem's set at a funeral. Go ahead, get it out of your system: duh.
But here's the thing. This isn't about a small chapel, filled with loved ones in black. The setting, in many ways, is the whole wide world. And the speaker would like it to stop being awesome for a moment, thank you very much. See, it's not enough that the funeral's full of sad people. The speaker wants that sadness to be reflected in everything—from the pigeons in the street to the stars in the sky. The true setting of "Funeral Blues" includes all of those things.
Let's list what we know about the speaker.
It's that last one we're interested in. This guy is so sad that he can't imagine any good or happiness in the future. He's so overwhelmed by grief that he's driven to speak in crazy hyperboles. It's as if his sadness has completely changed the way he sees the world around him, and he wants that sadness to be reflected back to him by everything he sees. It's serious business. But the problem is, he exaggerates so consistently that we may even have trouble taking him seriously sometimes.
And that's a bummer, because we believe that this guy is deadly serious. The mourning here is palpable, and it's no wonder this poem has become so popular at funerals and memorials. Anyone can relate to this speaker's consuming sorrow. We've been there, buddy.
"Funeral Blues" isn't too hard to understand, and you've got the title to clue you in on what's going down: someone has died, and the speaker is devastated. Not too difficult. But wading through Auden's hyperboles can be a little tough sometimes, so you might say this poem has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Auden was writing his poems during a time when all the cool poets were writing in free verse. These poets wanted to break poetry apart, make it less stuffy, more free and fresh.
But not Auden. This dude loved him some poetic forms. In fact, he's pretty much the master. Even while the other guys hated rhymes and all that formal poetry stuff, Auden stuck with them, and got really, really good at writing in forms. Much of the power of "Funeral Blues" lies in its repetitive, heavy rhymes, and its play on the elegy form.
A dead dude, mourners, a funeral, and a sad speaker? Sounds like an elegy to Shmoop. Elegies can take lots of different shapes and forms, since there are no rhyming or metrical rules for an elegy. But the great thing about "Funeral Blues" is that it's written in what are called elegiac stanzas…more or less.
An elegiac stanza is a quatrain written in iambic pentameter, usually with the rhyme scheme ABAB. Here's where the "more or less" comes in. "Funeral Blues" is written in quatrains, and it does make use of iambic pentameter, but it's highly irregular in its meter, with extra syllables here and wonky feet there. And the rhyme scheme is tweaked a bit, too: AABB instead of ABAB. Auden is using heroic couplets instead of alternating rhymes.
Still, the shoe fits, if a bit awkwardly.
Now, for the nitty-gritty stuff. Let's look at some of the messier moments, when "Funeral Blues" shakes up the form and lets its freak flag fly.
Take a look at line 1.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone.
Pretty perfect iambic pentameter, wouldn't you say? But what about the next line?
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Shmoop counts twelve syllables, which means we're likely dealing with a line of iambic hexameter—that's six iambs all in a row. Auden shakes things up, right at the beginning of the poem to let us know this won't be your typical elegy.
Then line 3 goes
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
And finally, the last line of the stanza brings us back to the wonderful world of regular old iambic pentameter:
Bring out the coffin let the mourners come.
Phew. Thank goodness were back to some normalcy.
But of course that raises the question: why does Auden do all this metrical variation in the first place? To be frank, there are a lot of plausible theories. Auden was known for being a virtuoso of form, so hey, maybe he's just having a bit of fun. But we think it's more likely that each choice is a deliberate one.
Take that trochee that starts off line 3. It sure draws a lot of attention to the word "silence." It practically rings in your ears. And then, there's that super lengthy line 2. Coming after "stop all the clocks," it sure slows down time a bit, and in a way, it fulfills the command that came in the previous line. He's clever, that Auden, so what some may write off as sloppiness, laziness, or even just quirky variations, are more likely deliberate choices.
The speaker spends the first stanza of "Funeral Blues" jawing about how much he wants everyone and everything to pipe down. Maybe he wants some peace and quiet to deal with his thoughts. Maybe he wants to make sure that everyone can hear his lament. Maybe he wants silence out of respect for the dead man. Whatever the answer may be, he sure does a bunch of talking about not talking.
The speaker is not just concerned with his own reaction to the man's death. He wants the acknowledgment of the public, too. Even though we don't really have much of a reason to think that the dead beloved is famous or anything, the speaker really desires that this death be noticed. Perhaps his grief is so consuming, that he wants it to be reflected in all the world around him.
Sun, moon, stars…sounds lovely, right? Well, not to our speaker. He wants all these lovely things—and everything else in nature, it seems—to leave him alone. The grief he feels seems to have interfered with his ability to appreciate nature, which is a big bummer, because we hear camping trips are awesome cures for the blues.
It's a funeral.