Auden, “Funeral Blues”

Here is the text:

This poem became famous when it was used in the movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” where it is apparently given a moving rendition.  I did not see the movie, but I did read about the Auden craze it stirred up; when I looked up the poem in question I was rather surprised.

I felt that something was seriusly amiss–what the filmmakers and audience apparently considered profound pathos struck me as pathetic silliness.  Moaning airplanes?  Pigeons in wreaths?  Traffic cops with black gloves?  This is pretty far from the Auden of the superb Yeats elegy or “Musee des Beaux Arts”–it is true that in those poems too he uses quotidian images, but the tone and strategy are completely different: tragedy is made more poignant by the _indifference_ of the ordinary world, not by an absurd parade of ostentatious grief.

So it seemed to me there were three likely explanations.  First, there is something wrong with me, and I am unable to appreciate simple heartfelt emotion in poetry without suspicion–this may be true to some extent, but I do think that most good poets are at least as suspicious as I am.  Second, Auden’s “Blues” indicates a venture into American popular culture gone horribly astray, like a Puccini Western; perhaps he thought the aeroplanes and telephones lent a jazzy cutting-edge flavor to the poem. 

The third explanation was that it was a parody, the modern British version of Ode to Stephen Dowling Botts.  In fact, the opening lines remind me of the famous verses writeen by a Poet Laureate on an illness of the Prince of Wales: 

Across the wires the electric message came
”He is no better, he is much the same.”

As I was looking for the poem on the Web tonight, I found the following in the Wikipedia article on it (

“The original five-stanza version was a parody of a poem of mourning for a political leader written for the verse play The Ascent of F6, which Auden wrote with Christopher Isherwood in 1936. The original five-stanza version and the final four-stanza version have the same two first stanzas. The final three stanzas of the five-stanza version (in The Ascent of F6) are entirely different from the final two stanzas of the four-stanza version.”

Explains a lot.  Of course, the final version may not be a parody just because the original version was.  I guess you can decide what to do with it.

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7 Responses to Auden, “Funeral Blues”

  1. Mary Evelyn White says:

    So, I’d be interested in what you think of Sacks’ new book, The Mind’s Eye – have you read that?

    • lippenheimer says:

      Have not…I don’t think it’s out on the Blind Guy Library yet. I suppose it might be cool, though I haven’t really gotten into reading about blindness.

      • Mary Evelyn White says:

        I dont’ think it’s just blindness – I think it is a whole array of issues and how people recreate that external world to make sense in their own minds.

  2. M. Schatt says:

    I also found the fact that Auden should have seriously written something as trite and sentimental very puzzling. Thus I did some research.

    The second, altered version of funeral blues was published together with three other songs as “Four Cabaret Songs for Hedli Anderson” .

    Though not as overblown as the original, five stanza version, the famous second version is also
    a parody, as the heading “Cabaret Songs” clearly indicates. They were put to music by Benjamin Britten. The CD is still on sale at amazon or Itunes. I bought the mp3 of funeral blues and-lo and behold, the singer presents it with deliberately exaggerated operatic pathos, the sentimental
    lines are sung to pieces with ever so much sarcasm. This is not just any old interpretation of the song, it is the very context that Auden put the poem in himself-sentimentality destroyed by sarcasm.

    So, as a conclusion, the whole thing is totally ridiculous. A highly intellectual, disillusioned, difficult modernist is discovered by the entertainments society, low brow culture falling in love with high brow, all based on a misreading.

    Even stranger it seems to me that noone so far has bothered to find out the exact details of the case. Poor Auden…

    • Roy says:

      Thanks for the comment! It is dismaying that people equate poetry with the text on Hallmark cards, but then Auden knew, as he said about Yeats, that the words of the dead poet ‘are modified in the guts of the living.’
      I believe Auden’s contributions to the cabaret also included marrying a performer so she could escape from the Nazis…or did I mention that already above? I wrote the post a very long time ago.

      • M.Schatt says:

        The Auden quote in your comment hits it on the head. Although I have to admit that the last stanza of “Funeral Blues” would probably work as a “serious” somewhat surreal love poem. The first three stanzas would be fine as an epitaph for e North Korean leader and I think Auden wanted them to be understood somewhere along that line.

        But let me not be too elitist. To my shame I have to admit that for years I just took the idea that “Funeral Blues” was one of Auden’s main achievements for granted. After the film, the poem made its way into each and every English literature textbook used in German highschools as they always want to catch up with trends (I work as an English teacher). Nobody ever noticed that this is not really typical Auden. It was only when I started to read more of Auden’s poems recently that it struck me funny he should have written something as strangely unsophisticated.

        I guess the filmmakers needed a gay poet to quote and they stumbled upon “Funeral Blues” which is probably one of the very few poems in Auden’s oeuvre that can be readily understood without any background.

        Be that as it may, this is a story about art, media and popular myths bordering on the bizarre.

        I wonder if any serious Auden critics have written about it. It would be very surprising if nobody did, but there is nothing on the Web.

        The cabaret artist Auden married was Erika Mann, Thomas Mann’s daughter.

        Thanks for the quick answer after so long a time.

      • Roy says:

        If they wanted an elegy by Auden, they couldn’t have done better than his poem in memory of Yeats–quite accessible and moving, and you could excerpt bits for a film.
        The cabaret medium is one that I don’t have an instinctive feel for, with its ironies and its combination of popular and elite culture. I have a better sense of what ‘blues’ means to Americans, but god only knows what it meant to Auden. I feel certain that he was not a devotee of Blind Willie McTell or Son House, but there was also a vaudevillized version that may have crossed the pond.
        I recommend Humphrey Carpenter’s bio of Auden, not so much for anything about this poem as for an overall sense of his world.

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