Stop all the clocks

Today’s poem is one of the saddest I have read in the English language. It is by W. H. Auden, dated around 1945. The last line encapsulates deep despair and sadness. I think it is best to read it when things are fine and life is not turbulent.

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 around the necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policeman 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 woods:
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

What strikes me in the last verse is how an impotent human raging against the universe wants the whole show to be packed up. It is as if the world is a mere stage and now that the play is over, it is time to shut it down. The stars are lights that can be switched off, the moon just another prop to be put away, the sun a human construct that needs to be taken down, the oceans and the woods are just superficial scenery which can be removed.

21 thoughts on “Stop all the clocks

  1. idrish Saturday March 25, 2006 / 12:46 pm

    just brilliant


  2. sarat Saturday March 25, 2006 / 12:54 pm

    really touching and sad, very well expressed


  3. Acharya Saturday March 25, 2006 / 1:55 pm

    Dear Atanu,

    What brought this on?

    Despair is everywhere these days.

    The Congress minions (including the Prime Minion, copyright) are looking into the depths of depression, what with the second “TYAAG” and all …

    Sane people are despondent, noting the depths to which the gullible media can sink in our country, where a shamelessly self-serving act of escape (from the law) is portrayed as one of high sacrifice.

    Your act of publishing such a poem in a situation like this is quite irresponsible (almost equivalent to the publication of Those Cartoons, gasp!). It might push people over the edge … oh wait, given the number of minions vs. the number of sane people in this country, it will probably do the country a whole lot of good!

    Nice work, Atanu!



  4. amar Saturday March 25, 2006 / 2:27 pm


    I cannot but remember:
    soonest our best men with thee doe goe
    Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.

    by Donne.


  5. Parvati Saturday March 25, 2006 / 4:44 pm

    Nothing like poetry to delve deep into the truth of pain or joy or love with an ease of a knife into soft butter.
    The poet just wants it all over and done with, and “pack up the moon,pour away the ocean” catch this feeling of the poet very well indeed…

    Quite lovely.


  6. Ravi Saturday March 25, 2006 / 9:05 pm

    Painful to read and very, very sad!


  7. Tarun Monday March 27, 2006 / 2:46 am

    The Fly – William Blake

    Little fly,
    Thy summer’s play
    My thoughtless hand
    Has brushed away.

    Am not I
    A fly like thee?
    Or art not thou
    A man like me?

    For I dance
    And drink and sing,
    Till some blind hand
    Shall brush my wing.

    If thought is life
    And strength and breath,
    And the want
    Of thought is death,

    Then am I
    A happy fly,
    If I live,
    Or if I die.

    “What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams … and we search in vain for their original … Much would have been gained if through timely advice and instruction young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.” – Arthur Schopenhauer

    Why the hell are we conditioned into the smooth strawberry-and-cream Mother-Goose-world, Alice-in-Wonderland fable, only to be broken on the wheel as we grow older and become aware of ourselves as individuals with a dull responsibility in life? – The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

    Come away, O human child!
    to the waters and the wild
    with a faery, hand in hand,
    for the world’s more full of weeping
    than you can understand…
    – – – W. B. Yeats

    I’ve lived to bury my desires,
    And see my dreams corrode with rust;
    Now all that’s left are fruitless fires
    That burn my empty heart to dust.
    – – – -Aleksandr Pushkin

    “I do indeed know what morbid compulsion feels like. Fungus, erosion, disease. The taste of flannel in your mouth. The smell of asbestos in your brain. A rock. A sinking heart, silence, taut limbs, a festering invasion from within, seeping subversion, and a dull pressure on the brow, and in the back regions of the skull. It starts like a fleeting whim, an airy, frivolous notion, but it doesn’t go; it stays; it sticks. . .It foreshadows no joy — and takes charge, and you might just as well hang your head and drop your eyes and give right in. You might just as well surrender at the start and steal that money, strike that match, (masturbate), eat that whole quart of ice cream, grovel, dial that number, or search that forbidden drawer or closet once again to handle the things you’re not supposed to know are there. You might just as well go right off in whatever direction your madness lies and do that unwise, unpleasant, immoral thing you don’t want to that you know beforehand will leave you dejected and demoralized afterward.” – Joseph Heller, Something Happened


  8. Nath Monday March 27, 2006 / 10:09 pm

    Cheerful stuff. Might I prescribe some Ehrmann as an antidote?


  9. Suhail Kazi Friday March 31, 2006 / 12:42 pm

    Quite a beautifully morose poem that. Tarun, your comment was excellent too!!
    Continuing in the same theme, let me add 2 shers from Mirza Ghalib’s “Dil hi tau hai”:

    qaid-e-hayaat-o-band-e-Gam asl meiN donoN ek haiN
    maut se pehle aadmi gham se najaat paaye kyuuN
    (prison of life is same as bondage of grief, then why should anyone expect freedom from sorrow in his lifetime?)

    The ‘maqta'(last sher) of same ghazal Ghalib ends thus:
    ‘Ghalib’-e-khasta ke begair kaun se kaam band haiN
    roiyye zaar-zaar kya, kijiye haai-haai kyun?
    (This sad weak Ghalib matters little to the world..the show goes on, then why lament and mourn his death?)

    Though literally it comes across v.dark, but I think the maqta atleast has a definite positive, even a bit playful, spin on it.

    Atanu’s response: Suhail, thanks much. When you find the time, would appreciate your translation of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Dushte Tanhaai Mein.


  10. TJ McGowan (aka 'Mrs Myth') Thursday July 20, 2006 / 4:02 pm

    The recent death of a wonderful person, had me thinking about the line “Stop all the clocks…” so I searched for the poem and came upon this page. The comments, quotes, and additional poems were all fascinating reading. They made this page so much more interesting than the pages that just had the poem. The wonderful person who recently passed away was (Dr)Reg Bolton. An inspiring, intelligent, prolific author, educator, and advocate of community circus. Since the early 1970’s he has taught tens of thousands of kids (and adults) the thrills and skills of live social community circus performances. His influence through his work and publications has influenced the world (If you are familiar with contemporary performance groups such as Cirque De Soile, Circus Oz, Cirque Eloize, etc, He not only phrased the term ‘new circus’but also many of the key people in this industry have been influenced either directly or indirectly by his work over the decades.)
    The sudden death, had me in a contemplative mood, which is why I sought out this poem. As it happens I have already been moved to compose three poems today, all on the related theme of death. It’s a new theme for me, and I have never written three poems in a day before. Somehow it helps with the mourning process.
    Mostly my poems are cheeky or humorous, but I have begun publishing some of my serious ones too.
    If you have the time feel free to read them at

    I’m always keen to get feedback from people, whether it’s good or bad. You can leave comments in the guestbook.
    Thanks, ‘Mrs Myth’ (TJ McGowan).


  11. John D. Anderson Saturday August 12, 2006 / 5:03 pm

    You know, I assume, the scene in the movie Three Weddings and a Funeral where this poem is read at the funeral of one man by his lover.


  12. Stacey Saturday September 23, 2006 / 11:07 pm

    This is my favourite poem and is very dear to my heart, ever since studying it at school years ago.

    I love the structure and the way the tone encapsulates the somber feelings of losing a loved one. I recently had news of a death and it really has been playing through my mind ever since.

    One thing i find a little off with this poem is the line about the public doves as to me reading the poem it doesn’t seem to sit right.


  13. Shamira Tuesday February 6, 2007 / 7:33 pm

    it was very touching, had a very deep meaning to it. i got very emotional after reading it.


  14. Nazish Tuesday February 6, 2007 / 7:37 pm

    Its pretty deep and the way its written makes us all relate to our own lives in some personal way. it reminds me of the reality of death.


  15. A. Monday February 26, 2007 / 9:24 pm

    I have always been touched by this poem. My husband passed away almost 2 years ago and the words of this poen were just too stark for me to use at the service. I just wrote his memorial for the newspaper and in it, included just one verse of the poem… “He was my North, my South…”


  16. ROGER Monday March 5, 2007 / 11:23 am

    BORING ive read better poems than this!


  17. rb326wak Sunday March 18, 2007 / 3:44 am

    I have just recently discovered this poem and this site for that matter. I ran across it when I went searching for the poem after I heard it in the movie ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’. I couldn’t believe how moved I was just by hearing it through the tv, so I decided I had to find it. Then after reading all of these fascinating comments I felt compelled to leave my own. This poem shares to me the importance of a human life to another, as well as combines life with the sadness of living.


  18. Chris Friday June 15, 2007 / 3:49 am

    I watch “Four Weddings and a Funeral” everytime it’s on just to hear this poem and it gets me everytime.


  19. Dick Thursday July 12, 2007 / 12:26 pm

    I don’t know when I was first introduced to this poem, but it became even more poignant when in February I lost my wife of 36 years to cancer. In the first days it was surprising to me that anything happened … that the sun did come up, the clocks still worked, there were sports events and movies, and that people did not know the world had indeed stopped, at least for me. But slowly things began to move again and I became aware of them, and also aware that there were others suffering their own losses independent of mine and that their worlds had stopped also. This poem will always remind me that the clocks have stopped, whether commanded to do so or not, for those whose lives are interrupted by a loved one’s death. It is little to take the time to stop and share a moment with those trying to cope with the eternity of loss. But it makes all the difference in enduring it. This poem reminds me what it is like. It is not a place I want to stay, but nor is it a place I want to forget. I am grateful to Auden’s words for their reminder.


  20. Layla Wednesday July 25, 2007 / 12:55 am

    This is exactly how I felt when my oldest son, at age 21, passed away in January. I remember my first time in the grocery store after his funeral, maybe 2 weeks later, and I actually had the words to this poem running through my head as I watched the other shoppers pick out vegetables, and buy milk, argue over what brand of tuna to buy, and try to shush fussy children. I so vividly remember thinking “How can they just act so normal like this? Don’t they know he is dead? Aren’t they sad, too? The world lost a wonderous person, why isn’t the whole world grieving for him?”
    I always found this poem so sad, and somewhat morbid. I had heard it read at funerals, and always thought it was far too dark, too despairing, too hopeless. I always thought it better to go ahead and be sad, and miss that person, but to also be happy that they were embarking on yet another wonderful journey, to somewhere unknown, I always thought it better to be hopeful you would see that person again, in the afterlife, heaven, a new life, or whatever.
    But I was so very wrong. It had never been MY child, my beloved, precious son who was dead. When it is the person YOU love, the truth is that everything does feel dark and morbid and despairing and hopeless.
    And you truly do feel as if the whole universe should grieve with you. You said it was as if the world was merely a stage. But you see, it is. As The Bard himself wrote, “All the world’s a stage,
    And all the men and women merely players:
    They have their exits and their entrances;et cetra…”
    And when someone you love dies, you do feel a bit like tearing down the set.


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