Friday Flashback, Funeral Blues by W. H. Auden

Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (r...
Christopher Isherwood (left) and W.H. Auden (right) photographed by Carl Van Vechten, February 6, 1939 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been a busy week in my part of Penn’s Woods–busy, snowy, icy. And while I’ve had a lot to catch up on I thought it would be a shame to miss the chance at a Friday Flashback on W. H. Auden’s birthday. Auden was a technician, my old mentor would say, a master of meter and form.

He’s honestly not been one of my favorite poets, but I’ve been studying him more and more recently, especially since a friend posted on Facebook a rather racy poem called “A Platonic Blow,” attributed to him. There’s a lot of evidence that it really was written by him, although I admit that a few of the lines strike me as rather too cliché for a poet of his caliber. But further investigation seems to point to the fact that the version printed may have been lifted from one of his notebooks, and might have been an unfinished draft. At the very least it was written only for close friends, and I would guess by its randy nature, for the sheer fun of it. He publicly denied authorship.

Friends if you do that to me I will come back and haunt and possibly seriously harm you. It’s not that I think he would be, especially now, ashamed of the homosexual content of the poem. It’s not the only one, just maybe the sauciest one. It’s just that if a poet’s work is unfinished, and possibly unpolished, or at least not meant for public view, it seems unfair to expose (pardon the pun) the piece to the world where it may be judged alongside other works that were much more finely crafted.  Ah well, such is the risk of being a writer, diaries and letters and all seem fair game for publication.

I’ve got at least one very close friend who will probably disagree with my current assesment, but that’s okay. I’m open to discussion. In fact in the future after I’ve given the thing a bit more study we may talk more about it and Auden here.

But for now I want to flashback to almost two years ago during National Poetry Month of 2012 where I shared this reading of Auden’s “The Unknown Citizen.” I think there are better readings of it than mine online, but I found it so eerily up-to-date socially and politically that I felt compelled to record it.

The next day I posted a reading that really gets to me. It was originally written as something of a cabaret piece, but this scene from “Four Weddings and a Funeral” brought it to people’s attention as something beautifully raw and heartbreaking. “Funeral Blues” was first introduced to me on one of my visits to Northern Ireland when  a dear friend of mine, also named David, read it to me one tipsy night in his kitchen over gin and cigarettes. I think we cried. That’s how I will remember it anyway.

And so here it is for Flashback Friday and W. H. Auden’s birthday (okay, about twenty minutes late), recited by actor John Hannah.

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11 Comments Add yours

  1. PB Rippey says:

    Oh, wonderful. “Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun”. I’ve always found Auden’s poetry raw and heartbreaking, and intimate and disarmingly–or maybe I mean deceptively–emotional read after read.


    1. Yes, whatever it was that I had first read by him seemed distant emotionally. I wish I could remember what it was, but I think it was a piece in which he was imitating the style of another poet. It was a poor first impression of the fellow. I’m liking him more and more now.


  2. marceltina says:

    Why am I now marceltina again ? Oh never mind. .Anyway..that poem of the pick up at the bus stop was something else !! I wonder did he write it ? Surely they would have to produce the original if there was any doubt ? I never heard of it before. For some reason , I never got along with Auden..Have tried. Perhaps I should give him another go. His pal Isherwood on the other hand I do admire . Have loved his work in the past..(haven’t read it for some time) and read almost every word he wrote…got quite absorbed in Isherwood’s world. Kristine…


    1. Haha, oh you of a thousand names! I shall have to dig into Isherwood then on your recommendation.
      There is a quote from him in one of those links that he was writing a rather fun and 20 graphic poem by that title. But I wonder how sure we can be that the copy that’s available is actually what he wrote? Would it be so unthinkable for someone to imitate his style and write such a thing claiming it to be is?


  3. slpmartin says:

    Will have to go back and look at Auden’s work….I too may have not given it the attention it deserves…Thanks!


    1. Hey, thank you, Charles. Seems ive always got something new to learn.


  4. Colin says:

    I have a set of my “black journals”, ie the binders I’ve written since age 10 or so. Four for each year. They will burn with me in my coffin, and I’ll be explicit about that in my will. Very explicit. 😀

    The Auden poem “Funeral Blues” has an interesting history. It started as a biting satire in his play “The Ascent of F6” in 1936, a play co-written with Christopher Isherwood. In the play it is a mocking, snarky, over-blown eulogy of a dead politician. By now it has become a dirge that people seriously use at their funerals.

    It just shows that however much writers want it, we don’t always have control of how the audience use our works. So, I will have to take extra precautions to ensure my journals burn with my coffin…


    1. I think it was Tom O’Bedlam who said that it was a cabaret sort of number, so I knew it was originally satire, but I didn’t realize Isherwood was involved. And yes, there is something to be said for reader response theory.
      And I’ve already destroyed my earliest journals. Not going to chance it.


  5. John says:

    Oh you just wait …. all the poems I’ll publish about you … 🙂

    I cannot watch this without crying. Every time. Every damn time. Tears. And more tears.

    It’s funny you posted this. One day last week, Julian asked me about this poem, so I pulled out my volume of Collect Auden, and read the poem. Not nearly as well as John Hannah, but, I discovered something: I can’t read it without crying either.

    This movie came out in 1994 — and, we were well into the second decade of AIDS, and it was still destroying people left and right. Endless news of this or that person being infected, or dying. Endless news of deaths and memorial services. This poem and movie came out at a time when I think I was especially numb emotionally. I can remember sitting in the movie theatre, and weeping so much when John Hannah started weeping. I was a wreck. I remember leaving the movie and realizing that I had no idea what happened after that scene. Years later, I ran across the movie on cable, and finally watched the ending of the movie (which, after this poem, seems rather anticlimactic). I almost wish the movie had been switched around a little, and this scene was the final scene — it would be a powerful ending.

    Thanks for sharing and making me cry — again. 🙂


    1. Ah, you’re welcome. Thank you for bringing up the timely cultural context of this piece within the movie and what was going on in the gay community at that time. I was still living in denial in 94, let alone the closet. But it wouldn’t be long before that changed. Frightening times to be in love. Can you believe I’ve never actually seen this movie? Only this scene.


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