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On the Importance of Poetry – Part One

The year is 1994.  I am eight years old and I watch as Dad removes a videotape from its red and white rental case.  “Right then, Sonny Jim,” he says, wagging the cassette at me for emphasis.  “The first swear word I hear and you’re up to bed." 

We had rented 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' from Movie Mart, our local video shop, and I was triumphant of my place on the settee.  The film was a 15 certificate and I knew I was pushing my luck by at least seven years by being there.  As a fan of the action and war genre, Dad was surprisingly tolerant of my watching scenes of violence.  Even obscenity within these types of films was largely overlooked.  At the time, my three favourites were ‘Labyrinth’, 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' and - thanks to Dad - 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day'.  So the rules were suspended for films containing guns, explosions and cybernetic organisms, but there was something about swear words within the context of a rom-com that just didn’t sit well with him.  

Four Weddings and a Funeral begins with its cast waking up and getting ready for the first of the film’s five ceremonies.  As they all make their way to the church, Hugh Grant’s character is still in bed.  He reaches over to his alarm clock to check the time and is shocked fully awake as he realises he’s overslept.  “Oh fuck,” he exclaims.  “Fuck!”  I looked at Dad.  He didn’t need to say anything - his eyebrows seemed to point to the door.  My Four Weddings and a Funeral experience lasted 3 minutes and 23 seconds.  It took five years and the release of Notting Hill for me to fully forgive Hugh Grant. 

Had Dad learned to stop worrying and love the F-bomb, it would have led to my introduction to the poetry of W.H Auden.  At the eponymous funeral, John Hannah’s character gives an emotional recital of Auden’s 1938 poem ‘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.

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.

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 forever: I was wrong.

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.



The film was a huge international success and brought Auden’s poem to wide public attention.  In its original 1936 form, the poem was a satirical piece about the death of a political leader, but its inclusion in 1994's most successful British film not only cemented its legacy as a poem of sincerity rather than satire, but also made it an obvious choice at funerals thereafter.  And as a result of this single poem, W.H Auden’s work as a whole experienced a huge renaissance in interest.  Publishers fell over themselves to reprint his work, all with shiny new introductions.  But I wasn’t even close to knowing any of this until well into the next century.  And as I climbed into an early bed, I prayed with all my heart that Potty Mouth Grant would miss that wedding.  

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