What features of W. H. Auden's poem "Funeral Blues" make it a modernist poem?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The modernist literary movement developed as a reaction to two world wars and all of the atrocities that came with them. As a result of these atrocities, the modernist writer became jaded, cynical, alienated, and pessimistic. The modernist saw the world in a state of modern decay and that the "stability and quietude of Victorian civilization were rapidly becoming a thing of the past" (The Literature Network, "Modernism"). Modernists also reacted against the idealism of the Romantic era.

One point of evidence that W. H. Auden's poem "Funeral Blues" fits the modernist genre concerns the fact that the poem satirizes the wailing laments of deceased loved ones so common in the Romantic era. The poem also appears to be satirizing the Romantic ideal that love is everything. Satirization can be seen in the sarcastic tone detected in such stanzas as the first, second, and third. For example, sarcasm can be detected when the speaker commands, "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone ... let the mourners come" and further still in the line, "Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead." In other words, the speaker is commanding the whole world to stop what it's doing and mourn the death of one person, which is literally an impossibility. In the third stanza, we see the speaker making declarations commonly heard by romantic poets: "He was was my North, my South, my East and West"; in other words, the deceased "he" was the speaker's all. Yet, we know the speaker is not seriously echoing the sentiments of the romantics when he ends the stanza with the statement, "I was wrong." Hence, since the poem satirizes ideals proclaimed during the Romantic literary movement, we know the poet is rejecting romantic views, which is a common  notion found in the modernist genre.

Since the poem is satirical, we can also detect a very pessimistic tone that is characteristic of the modernist genre,  such as can be seen in the final line: "For nothing now can ever come to any good." It can be argued that, in the final line, the speaker is not simply just arguing that since now the loved one is dead, there is no longer any good in life. Instead, it can be argued the poet is speaking from a deeper worldview that is a product of having endured two world wars. The speaker has seen so much literally tragic death that he has come to the conclusion that literally nothing has "come to any good."