Four weddings and a circle of poetry

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THE RADIO announcer reviewing the day's papers last Wednesday morning sounded half-amused, half-baffled. There is a new craze for Auden's poetry in the United States (and an incipient one here), and it comes as a by-product of the film Four Weddings and a Funeral. So much so that Vintage Books has rushed out a popular edition of Auden lyrics, to sell alongside memorabilia of the film. To cash in, that is.

What seemed to amuse the announcer was the quoted stanza from the poem which has caused the craze, 'Funeral Blues':

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.

Clearly that line about the dog seems to come from a funny song, and yet the poem as recited at the funeral is quite devastating, as those of us who have already blubbed through that bit of the film will testify.

A large part of this is due to John Hannah's protrayal of the devastated lover, who recites the poem at the funeral of the Simon Callow character. Callow is shown as a life-and-soulish, Wildean, phenomenally waistcoated extrovert with a working-class boyfriend. One of the revelations at his death is that he, too (as one might have guessed if one had thought about it), comes from a humble background, which his extroversion conceals. The death devastated not only the boyfriend but also the parents. For the first time in the film we move from a world where the tone is set by money to one where life is a struggle.

And while we are adjusting our emotions from broad comedy to sharp grief, there comes this poem of Auden's, with its strange exaggerations. Here is the second stanza:

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.

The two verses quoted so far were used initially in Auden and Isherwood's play The Ascent of F6, and the bemusement of the radio announcer was not misplaced, because they come from a pastiche blues which was supposed to satirise the love of a population for a secular political leader, now lost. The preposterousness of the sky-writing planes was supposed to be something one might lay on for a dead Franco or a Mussolini, not for a lover. The last three stanzas, which can still be read in the text of the play, descended into bathos, as the corpse is ordered to be driven into the grave at 90 miles an hour.

But then Auden rethought the poem. Dropping the last three stanzas, he decided he could turn the thing into a love-song after all. This happened in 1936 at the time of his collaboration with Benjamin Britten. The emotions of the Britten setting become more intense with each stanza. But also (at least the way Sarah Walker sings it on one recording) it becomes more difficult to understand the words. Britten has set them in too high a register for clarity. The song is supposed to be a cabaret number and it is of the nature of such songs that every word should be well understood.

Here is the third verse, in which Auden first makes it clear that he is talking about the death of a lover, rather than, say, Oswald Mosley:

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.

By now, in Four Weddings and a Funeral, the camera has left John Hannah's face and we are watching the miserable cortege on its way to the cemetery. And here comes the fourth and final, the most absolute stanza:

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.

I asked Mike Newell, the film's director, whose idea it had been to feature the poem at the funeral. He explained that it had been in Richard Curtis's original script. What was not in the original version was the idea that the two gay characters should come from a different class background from most of the others in the set of friends. There had been a feeling that the original script was too stuck with one set, that it might be a good idea to let in a little fresh air.

This is interesting because, the way the film turns out, the Hannah and Callow characters seem so specific that I found myself wondering whether they were drawn from real life. Apparently not. Other characters are said to be based on people Richard Curtis knew, but not these two.

So, if we look at the history of the fortunes of Auden's 'Funeral Blues', we find an extraordinary chain of events. Auden begins a collaboration with Isherwood, in which he satirises the leadership cult. He goes on to collaborate with Britten and Hedli Anderson (Louis MacNeice's wife) to produce cabaret songs. Britten's relationship with Auden, which began in love, ends in acrimony, to Auden's great regret. The songs remain as a respected but not highly prized part of the Britten repertoire. Auden dies and his American publisher, Random House, loses interest in him to the extent of not wanting to publish the definitive edition of his works.

Richard Curtis writes a script that gets made. On the way through production it is given its present, extremely potent form. The film as a whole is a howling success and everybody rushes off to buy the Auden poem. Vintage Books (a subsidiary of Random House) rushes to cash in, having discovered that its backlist contains this little pot of gold, and in this country Faber does its fastest-ever production of a poetry volume in order to anticipate the same reaction.

I have left out one big event. It seems that a large number of people, since the Aids epidemic, have become familiar with the experience of funerals at which a devastated boyfriend has to pay tribute to his prematurely dead lover. Though the death of the Callow character is actually caused by a heart attack, the emotional scene that ensues gains force from those kind of memories. So Auden's poem found an audience which needed it - nearly 60 years after its composition. Auden would have been surprised, and, I think, touched at the outcome.

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