Stop All The Clocks, W H Auden – an Analysis


Stop all the clocks – something dreadful has happened and time itself needs to stop.

Gut Reaction
Loss, bereavement, the love of my life has died and the very universe might as well cease to exist.

What does it all mean?
When I first reread this I remembered that it was written by Auden to his lover Chester Kallman, and I assumed it was a kind of eulogy and that Kallmam had died. Incorrect – Kallman hadn’t died at all, he had just left his lover. Kallman, you daft sod…how could you leave someone who writes such beautiful words???!

I digress…

The overall message to me is, it doesn’t matter what you do, or what happens now, my love has gone and my life is over.

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Time has stopped. He can’t move on or live.
Also, he needs absolute silence. No ticking clocks, no barking dogs, no music. Even the imagined funerary processional drum is silenced (‘muffled’).

Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Since there is no actual funeral and no funeral procession for both acquaintances and strangers to gawp at, is he inviting people to stare, point, talk about him now that his lover has left him? Think Facebook status going from ‘in a relationship’ to ‘single’ and the vultures, well-intentioned or vindictive, swooping in to feast on your pain.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Let life continue on for other people. Mournful sound of the planes to accompany his sorrow, going in circles because that’s what he feels he is doing.

Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
And as life continues on as normal for the rest of the world it reminds him of his loss – his love is dead to him, even if he is not actually dead. ‘Scribbling’ suggests carelessness; people behaving normally aren’t aware of his loss perhaps and dare to be happy?

Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
I believe (but am not certain) that these were typical signs of respect shown at funerals of people of great importance during the time of this poem being written. Is this just further death of the relationship being compared to a funeral or is he saying something about the importance of his lover in society? Or reiterating just how important he is to him?

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;
In short, his love was his whole world – his direction. His purpose. His pleasure. His muse. He feels void of all these things without him.

I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
Perhaps he loved him so much he couldn’t imagine life without him. Or more likely, he took his lover for granted and expected him to always be there.

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.
Life is effectively over for him, there is nothing that can ever bring him joy again. Nothing will inspire – the stars? Nothing will light him again – the moon and sun? He needs neither sustenance nor shelter – the ocean and wood?
By trivialising these things – ‘pack up the moon and dismantle the sun’ – he is making all around him a worthless material object that can be thrown away and forgotten about.

For nothing now can ever come to any good.
It won’t ever matter how hard anyone tries or how much of anything he has, or does, there is never going to be anything worth living for again.

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
Four stanzas, the first two of which lead up to the actual subject of the poem, stanza three, and four reverts to the mourning. It feels like the lead up to the funeral, the eulogy, and then the ‘afterwards’.

Bereaved, mournful.

Suggested rhyme scheme

Run on lines 3 and 4, and 5 and 6.

Similes and metaphors

Author’s relationship with their subject
The author is mourning his lost love. This person he loves completely and he feels that life is pointless without him.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
The truth about the true relationship between Kallman and Auden varies between sources and I am showing my age when I say I would prefer to be pouring over books in a library looking this up rather jump from site to site and getting conflicting information. However… What is true is that this poem is written about someone who meant the entire world to Auden, and without him he felt empty.
This poem is one of the first I remember reading in my teens that teachers and people generally ‘accepted’ as open acknowledgement of gay relationships that were just as loving – and fraught – as heterosexual ones. It became popular during the early days of AIDS because of the unfortunate connection between the number of AIDS victims that were homosexual men, it was used in Four Weddings and a Funeral, and again following 9/11.
It doesn’t make any difference who or what the poem is aimed at or used for; it is a poem about losing someone you love; who wouldn’t latch onto such beautiful words and claim it as their own?

Signing off
What a beautiful, beautiful poem.
To be loved so much that without you, another person feels their life is over, well. Wow. That is a lot of responsibility. Not sure I would like it… It would feel like overbearing infatuation.
Still. You can’t help (okay. I can’t help) being moved by these words.
I guess a message we can take from this is to not take people for granted and assume they will always be there, and to make sure the people we love actually know that we love them.

W H Auden

Prospect Magazine

When I read this I think of the song…How Can You Mend A Broken Heart


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