Like the popular blues music, “Funeral Blues” explores an emotional reaction to a loss. While the loss is presented as a death, the light tone and treatment in the first two stanzas and the emotional voice of the speaker in the second two stanzas seem to suggest that this death is figurative, representing the relationship. The images and personification also add to this confused emotional state of the speaker.
Who has not every tapped his feet to the tunes of rhythm and blues? This style of music has become a popular fixture in musical culture. Its soulful tones express the sadness and misfortune of humanity in a tone that is light enough to support its musical cadence and to keep audiences interested. In a way, W.H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues” can be compared to this type of music. It contains the rhythm and rhyme of a song while dealing with the sad situation of a funeral. Through manipulation of tone, clever use of syntax and unique personification and imagery, “Funeral Blues” conveys the confusing emotions of one experiencing a loss.
The tone of the first two stanzas is one of a youthful and innocent disrespect, as if the speaker is merely playing a game. Even the word “blues” in the poem does not suggest the necessary depth of grief that one would expect from the death of a loved one. The rhyme and rhythm contribute to this tone by producing a type of melody in the stanzas. The end rhyme of phone, bone, drum, come and so forth lighten the tone of the poem and move the reader along quickly through the lines. The reader may wonder what is wrong with the speaker that she does not understand death.
The speaker asks an unseen party to “prevent the dog from barking with a big juicy bone” and “cut off the telephone” as if this funeral is simply a slight interruption to her usual day. The personification of the airplane writing “He is Dead” in the sky in similar fashion as if he is writing “Eat at Joe’s” also adds to the tinge of innocent disrespect by the speaker. The reader may logically conclude perhaps that this death is not an actual death put perhaps a figurative one – the death of a relationship.
However, the tone shifts abruptly in the second pair of stanzas. Here, a sorrowful and resigned tone creeps into the lighter mood created earlier. The admission that “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 (lines 9-11)” conveys the actual depth of emotion that the speaker feels for the deceased. The metaphors she chooses show how complete absorbed she was in his world; he was everything to her. This comes as a surprise to the reader who was not expecting this response based up the light tone of the previous stanzas.
To show her grief the speaker uses several vast images: “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 woods” (lines 13-15). These directives reflect much more emotional intensity than the earlier mention of silencing a piano or stopping the clocks. Here, the speaker seems to truly understand what has happened and is fully realizing what this loss really means. She proves this with the statement, “I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong” (line 16). The reader is left to wonder if the woman is reacting to the loss of her love or his actual death. The one of first half of the poem suggests that the relationship is over, while the tone of the second half seems to paint a grimmer picture.
The poem can be said to easily mimic the content and style of blues music. It has a melodic and rhythmic movement to it while espousing the themes of understanding and accepting misfortune, whether it be the loss of a loved one or the loss of a relationship. While blues music seems to support the latter, the poem leaves this concept ambiguous for the reader to determine.