English Literature
Stop All the Clocks

Stop All the Clocks

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"Stop All the Clocks": A Masterpiece of Grief in W.H. Auden's Poem

W.H. Auden's poem, "Stop All the Clocks", written in 1938, is widely regarded as a masterpiece of grief in the 20th century. Through the use of poetic techniques such as caesura, enjambment, and metaphor, the speaker reflects on the themes of life, love, and death. It is known by the titles "Funeral Blues" and "Stop All the Clocks".

Biographical, Historical, and Literary Context of "Stop All the Clocks"

Biographical Context

W.H. Auden, born in Birmingham, England in 1872, was known for his openly gay identity and his close relationship with his friend and collaborator, Christopher Isherwood. This aspect of Auden's life is often considered when interpreting "Stop All the Clocks" from LGBTQIA perspectives, gaining even more significance during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s. The poem was featured in the 1994 film "Four Weddings and a Funeral", where it was recited at the funeral of a gay man's partner.

Historical Context

Although "Stop All the Clocks" was not published until 1938, its origins can be traced back to 1936 when it appeared as a song in the play "The Ascent of F6". This play, co-written by Auden and Isherwood, was a satirical critique of British imperialism. In the play, the poem was performed by a character mourning the death of a politician, and its language was deliberately melodramatic to highlight the absurdity of the situation.

Later on, Auden revised the poem for a performance by cabaret singer Hedli Anderson. This version removed the musical element and rewrote the final three stanzas to eliminate references to the play, resulting in a more heartfelt and serious tone.

The poem was first published in Auden's 1938 collection "Poems of To-Day" and later included in his 1940 collection "Another Time". As a standalone poem, "Stop All the Clocks" conveys a more melancholic tone.

Literary Context

"Stop All the Clocks" is structured as an elegy, a poem traditionally associated with funerals, creating a somber and mournful tone. The use of poetic techniques such as caesura, enjambment, and end-stop lines add to the poem's overall structure and convey the speaker's grief.

The Poetic Elements in "Funeral Blues" by W.H. Auden

Auden effectively utilizes caesuras, or pauses within a line of poetry, to create a disjointed rhythm that mimics the pauses of a funeral speech. The frequent use of caesuras, as seen in lines one and four, "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone" and "Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come", replicate the pauses a speaker would take during a real elegy.

Enjambment, where one line continues into the next without punctuation breaks, is also employed by Auden. In stanza two, the lines "Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead / Scribbling on the sky the message 'He is Dead'" replicate the patterns of someone speaking at a funeral, indicating that the speaker's thoughts are not yet complete.

Each stanza in the poem ends with an end-stop line, marked by a full stop at the end of the line. This technique emphasizes the finality of death, and the speaker believes that life will not continue (either literally or metaphorically) after the funeral, just like how nothing continues after the full stop.

The Poetic Devices in "Funeral Blues"

In addition to the poem's structure, Auden incorporates various poetic devices to convey the speaker's grief.

The Title

While known as "Funeral Blues", the poem's official title is "Stop All the Clocks". Its appearance in the 1994 film "Four Weddings and a Funeral" has led to its popular title.


Auden effectively uses imagery throughout the poem to describe the funeral and convey the speaker's grief. For instance, the speaker urges to "Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone", symbolizing a desire to halt life from moving on. The mention of doves, typically associated with love and peace, now represents death and grief as the speaker instructs to "Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves".

The use of the word "public" in W.H. Auden's poem "Stop All the Clocks" emphasizes the speaker's refusal to grieve privately, potentially due to its connection to the LGBTQIA community. The speaker mourns the loss of their loved one by referencing stars, the moon, and points of the compass, stating, "He was my North, my South, my East and West." This imagery highlights the significance of the deceased person to the speaker and the all-encompassing nature of their relationship. The speaker reinforces this idea by repeating it using stars, the moon, and the sun. The image of black clothing also symbolizes the speaker's desire for a public mourning, as seen in the line "Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves." The speaker believes that their grief is so immense and monumental that it should be shared universally.

The Power of Metaphor

In addition to visual imagery, Auden employs metaphors throughout the poem. In the third stanza, the speaker says, "He was my North, my South, my East and West, / My working week and my Sunday rest, / My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song." These metaphors illustrate the significance of the deceased person to the speaker, comparing them to a religion by stating that they were their "Sunday rest."

The Meaning of "Funeral Blues"

The poem "Stop All the Clocks" by W.H. Auden is widely interpreted as a reflection of grief and mourning. Through poetic devices, the speaker expresses their feelings of sadness and despair while coming to terms with a profound loss.

The Use of Literary Devices in "Stop All the Clocks"

In this first-person account, the speaker effectively conveys their deep sorrow and the process of coping with it through the use of metaphors, imagery, and instructions. The somber tone of the poem makes it a classic elegiac piece where the final line, "For nothing now can ever come to any good," serves as a finality to both the speech and death.

The Themes of "Stop All the Clocks"

The poem explores the themes of love and death. Auden uses metaphors to portray love, emphasizing its fleeting nature with the use of a caesura in the third stanza. The title "Funeral Blues" symbolizes death, and the poem delves into how love cannot exist forever in the face of it. The speaker urges the reader to conceal any signs of life, highlighting the futility of trying to escape death. Despite this plea, life goes on, making death an inevitable and conflicting reality for the speaker. Their perspective on the world changes after experiencing such a loss, as shown in the line, "I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong." The speaker is now caught between their previous beliefs and their current feelings of grief.

Key Takeaways from "Stop All the Clocks"

  • The poem, also known as "Funeral Blues," was initially written as a satire of British imperialism.
  • It was later revised and published in 1938 and 1940.
  • The speaker in the poem struggles with overwhelming grief after the loss of their loved one.
  • Auden effectively employs poetic devices, including rhyme, metaphor, and imagery, to convey the themes of love and death.

Inspiration and Message in "Stop All the Clocks"

There is no specific inspiration for "Stop All the Clocks," but it was originally written as a satire of British imperialism by Auden and Isherwood. The poem's message is open to interpretation, but it is often seen as an expression of immense and overwhelming grief for a lost loved one.

The Conflict of Emotions in "Stop All the Clocks"

The conflict depicted in "Stop All the Clocks" is not physical but internal. The speaker's perspective on the world is altered after experiencing the death of their loved one, as evident in the line, "I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong." They are torn between their previous beliefs and their current feelings of grief, making it a mental struggle to accept the inevitability of death.

The Artistry of Auden's "Stop All the Clocks"

In his renowned poem "Funeral Blues," W.H. Auden skillfully employs a range of poetic techniques, including rhyme, metaphor, and imagery, to capture the profound themes of love and death. This masterful use of literary devices adds depth and emotion to the already poignant subject matter.

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