Auden’s Funeral

Stephen Spender

To Christopher Isherwood

I

One among friends who stood above your grave
I cast a clod of earth from those heaped there
Down on the great brass-handled coffin lid.
It rattled on the oak like a door knocker.
And at that sound I saw your face beneath
Wedged in an oblong shadow under ground:
Flesh creased, eyes shut, jaw jutting,
And on the mouth a smile: triumph of one
Who has escaped from lifelong colleagues roaring
For him to join their throng. He’s still half with us
Conniving slyly, yet he knows he’s gone
Into that cellar where they’ll never find him,
Happy to be alone, his last work done,
Word freed from world, into a different wood.

II

But we, with feet on grass, feeling the wind
Whip blood up in our cheeks, walk back along
The hillside road we earlier climbed today
Following the hearse and tinkling village band.
The white October sun circles Kirchstetten
With colours of chrysanthemums in gardens,
The bronze and golden under wiry boughs
From which a few last apples gleam like agate.
Back in the village inn we sit on benches
For the last toast to you, the honoured ghost
Whose absence now becomes incarnate in us.
Tasting the meats and wine we hear your voice
Speaking in flat benign objective tones
The night before you died. In the packed hall
You are your words. Your audience read
Written on your face the lines they hear
Ploughed back and forth criss-cross across it,
The sight and sound of solitudes endured.
And, looking down at them, you see
Your image echoed in their eyes,
Enchanted by your language to their love.
And then, your last word spent, bravo-ing hands
Hold up above their heads your farewell bow.
Then many stomp the platform, entreating
Each, for his hoard, your still warm autograph.
But you have slipped away to your hotel
And lock the door, and lie down on the bed,
And fell out of men’s praise, dead on the floor.

III

Ghost of a ghost, of you when young, you waken
In me my ghost when young, us both at Oxford.
You, the tow-haired undergraduate
With jaunty liftings of the hectoring head,
Angular forward stride, cross-questioning glance,
A putty-faced comedian’s gravitas,
Saying aloud your poems whose letters bite
Ink-deep into my fingers lines I set
in 10 pt caslon on my printing-press:
AN EVENING LIKE A COLOURED PHOTOGRAPH
A MUSIC STULTIFIED ACROSS THE WATERS
THE HEEL UPON THE FINISHING BLADE OF GRASS.

IV

Returned now to your house – from which we first
Set forth this morning – the coffin on a table –
Back to your room blood-drowned in memories –
The poems deserted, empty chair and desk,
Books, papers, typewriter, bottles, and us –
Chester, blessed on your lips, named there ‘dear C’,
Now hunched as Rigoletto, spluttering
Ecstatic sobs, already beginning
Slantwards his earth-bent journey to you: – summons
Opera, your camped-on Eden – music – bodiless
Resurrection of your bodies,
Passionate duets whose chords conclude
Quarrels in harmonies. Remembering
Some tragi-jesting wish of yours, he puts
Siegfried’s Funeral March on the machine.
This drives out every word except our tears.
Summary drums, cataclysmic cymbals,
World-shattering brass uplift on drunken waves
The hero’s corpse upon a raft that’s borne
Beyond the foundering sunsets of the West
To that Valhalla where the imaginings
Of the dead poets flame with their lives.
The dreamer sleeps forever with the dreamed.

V

Then night. Outside your porch, we linger
Murmuring farewells, in thought already
Disparate as those stars in space above.
Gone from our feast, your ghost enters your name
Like music heard transformed to the notes seen.
This morning dwindles to a photograph
Black and white, of friends around a grave
That dark obliterates now. Buried,
The marvellous instrument of consciousness
With intellect like rays exposing
Us driven out on the circumference
Of this exploding time: but making
Paradigms of love, your poems,
That draw us back towards the centre,
The separateness of each within the circle
Of your engulfing isolation.