Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
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;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good. W. H. Auden
This poem uses powerful imagery to communicate feelings of grief and despair after the death of a loved one. However, Auden originally wrote the poem as a comic parody about the death of a politician in a play, when the first line was meant to show a dramatic and ironic overreaction. He then adapted it to be set to music by Benjamin Britten for a soprano to sing as a cabaret piece. It shows what a great poet Auden was that he could write so movingly even when he was not responding to any terrible loss himself. It is easy to see how the exaggerated imagery he used could have been part of a satire, but he also used the same imagery very effectively in a deeply felt and serious poem.
Auden uses this imagery to show how his own world has come to an end through his friend’s (or lover’s) death. His unreasonableness shows how distraught he is. He wants the rest of the world to come to an end in sympathy and commands all the clocks to be stopped. He describes very well the way we feel when something terrible has happened to us and we do not want other people to go on living their happy lives as if nothing has changed: we want them to understand and empathise with our pain. He portrays how we feel when we want to keep away from people and even ‘cut off the telephone’ and retreat into isolation.
Of course, the first line is made even more powerful because it is not possible to stop all the clocks. The grief portrayed becomes even more inconsolable, because it would take impossible things to make him feel better. Stopping time itself would maybe bring the person back, too, but it mostly shows that the poet does not want to go on living himself. All signs of life should be removed, such as the happy dog barking with his bone and the sound of a piano. The poet will only accept the gloomy sound of a ‘muffled drum’ before the coffin and the mourners come. Until Auden writes ‘Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come’ he has been saying what not to do. Only when the world is silent and all mourning the same loss, can the coffin be brought out and people come to grieve.
In the second verse Auden continues to use strong images of impossible ways to show his grief: the aeroplanes “scribbling in the sky ‘He is Dead’” is one which conjures up a very dramatic picture in our imagination proclaiming the death to the entire world. The use of capitals makes the dead person sound God-like. These are all very public shows, including tying black bows on every pigeon’s neck. The traffic policemen, normally wearing white gloves, would change them to black. All of these things would show that the whole world shared the same grief and showed respect for the dead. Auden chooses unlikely images, which makes them even more striking. If he had said weeping willows should droop or something obvious, it would not have been nearly so effective. Aeroplanes, pigeons and traffic police are random things which illustrate how Auden wants everything to participate in mourning.
The third verse becomes more personal. Auden uses exaggerated metaphors when he says ‘He was my North, my South, my East and West’, showing that his love stretched throughout the globe. But what is really touching is the line ‘My working week and my Sunday rest’ because it shows the person was everything to him: he was there in good times and in bad, in normal times and celebrations. He was there in ‘my talk’ which is more mundane and ‘my song’ which is special. This makes it sound like a marriage, ‘for better and for worse’. He ‘thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.’
In the last verse the real despair and pessimism comes in. Again, Auden commands us to do impossible things. He does not want the stars now, so tells us to ‘put out every one’. His imagery of packing up the moon and dismantling the sun, bringing about the end of the world to mirror his grief, is hugely dramatic and effective. He is deeply pessimistic: there is no hope left at all: ‘Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.’ He has no reason to live without his loved one.