'Stop all the clocks'

‘Stop all the clocks’ originates from a two-act play W H Auden wrote with the novelist Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6 (1936): a tragedy about a doomed mountain-climbing expedition which reflects, sometimes satirically, upon subjects as broad and contemporary as the relationship of imperialism to the suburbs; the dangers presented by charismatic, visionary leaders; and the conflicts between public and private lives. In this original context, the poem is in fact a song, set to music by Benjamin Britten and performed for the character James Ransom by two other characters called Stagmantle and Isabel, with a somewhat ironic tone.

Taking what were the first eight lines out of their context in the play and having them performed by a single singer, however, has a very different effect: it becomes a more sincere lament. Particularly, this seems to emphasise the poem’s other title, ‘Funeral Blues’: in some senses it is a pastiche of the popular American musical form, achieved through verbal rhythms, rhyming couplets and the employment of hard-luck love song imagery.

Auden took the piece in this more mournful direction in 1937, apparently to mark the end of a romantic relationship with either Michael Yates or David Impey, both of whom he had taught. It featured in a 1938 anthology called The Year’s Poetry; and in the collection Another Time (1940), Auden included it, along with ‘Johnny’, ‘O Tell Me the Truth About Love’ and ‘Calypso’ under the heading ‘Four Cabaret Songs for Miss Hedli Anderson’. Anderson – a soprano who would marry the poet Louis Macneice in 1942 – had sung it in the first, 1937 staging of The Ascent of F6.

The 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral featured a reading of ‘Stop all the clocks’, and brought a new audience to Auden’s poetry: a pamphlet of ten of Auden’s love poems was published shortly after the film’s release. It sold almost 300,000 copies in English and was translated into six other languages

W H Auden

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