The poet rediscovered in a Richard Curtis movie

The poet rediscovered in a Richard Curtis movie – W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues sold 257,000 copies after Four Weddings And A Funeral

  • Funeral Blues was written by one of the greatest poets of the 20th century 
  • Because of Richard Curtis’s film Four Weddings And A Funeral it became a hit
  • W.H. Auden enjoyed a popular renaissance 21 years after the poet’s death

POETRY  

COMPLETEWORKS OF W.H. AUDEN POEMS — VOLS I AND II 

edited by Edward Mendelson (Princeton £48 each, 848pp and 1140pp) 

In the phenomenally successful film Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994), the actor John Hannah recited a poem of love and loss at the funeral of his dead partner Gareth, played by Simon Callow. 

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…’ it began, and ended with the bleakest acceptance of permanent grief: ‘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.’ 

Funeral Blues was written by one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, W.H. Auden (pictured). Because of Richard Curtis’s film Four Weddings And A Funeral it became a hit

Few cinema-goers moved by that scene will have known that Funeral Blues was written by (arguably) one of the greatest poets of the 20th century. 

But because of the film, W. H. Auden enjoyed a popular renaissance — for Tell Me The Truth About Love, a pamphlet edition of Funeral Blues plus nine other poems, sold more than 275,000 copies, 21 years after the poet’s death. Some critics say that Auden was derivative and wrote too much doggerel. For others he surpasses even Yeats and Eliot. 

Serious poetry-lovers have a treat in store if they choose to invest in two new, handsome and heavy volumes: the definitive edition of his poetry by Professor Edward Mendelson. These books are aimed at scholars, but as an admirer of Auden I have enjoyed revisiting the work and learning more about it. His breadth alone makes him due for a revival. 

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York in 1907 into a middle-class (or, as he would have said in his Marxist phase, bourgeois) family. He was just 15 when he decided he wanted to become a poet instead of a mining engineer. Six years later he travelled to Berlin, witnessed street fights between Nazis and Communists, and became aware of class injustice. 

W.H. Auden enjoyed a popular renaissance — for Tell Me The Truth About Love, a pamphlet edition of Funeral Blues plus nine other poems, sold more than 275,000 copies, 21 years after the poet’s death

He was also able to set himself loose within the flourishing, often dark, gay sub-culture of Berlin, where he and his lover, the playwright Christopher Isherwood, enjoyed cabaret, low life and promiscuous sex. This was somewhat at odds with his work (for many years) as a dedicated school teacher. 

His first poetry was published by T.S. Eliot in 1930 and made an immediate impact. Auden was 23 and still trying out his voices. He could peddle Marxist propaganda, write bitter little ballads, delight casual readers with light verse and give voice to the angst of a whole era — especially in the truly great poem, 1 September 1939, which he later disowned because he thought it dishonest. 

That poem contains the line ‘We must love one another or die’, a poignant, challenging statement as often quoted as Larkin’s ‘What will survive of us is love.’ 

W H Auden (1907-1973), English-American poet, photographed prior to a poetry reading at the Madison campus of the University of Wisconsin

Modern poets (whose increasing complexity, I regret to say, can keep readers at arm’s length) tend to scorn such simplicities. But Auden was not afraid of direct statements that remain in the mind and the heart for ever.

In 1939, Auden and Isherwood sailed for the U.S, earning dislike, even hatred, from those who thought they were choosing an easy option and betraying Britain at war. That year he also fell in love with the young man who was perhaps to make him regret his earlier erotic adventures. 

Chester Kallman was Auden’s junior by 14 years and Auden viewed their love as a true marriage. But in 1941 Kallman refused his demand for mutual fidelity, causing Auden to feel ‘stripped of selfcontrol and self-respect’ — and dangerously angry. 

That pain was one factor which led him back to Christianity, but a nonsexual relationship with his great love was to continue for the rest of his life.

Auden influenced a whole generation and now deserves new readers. His clipped, satirical tone rings truer than ever in our irreverent, angst-ridden age and he would have recognised the theatre of cruelty that is social media. These two glorious volumes, containing nearly 2,000 pages of poems, variations and notes, have convinced me of his greatness all over again. 

And amid all those words, two simple lines encapsulate the agonising, beautiful complexity of human need and love: ‘If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me.’

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