Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 438

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The reader of “Churchill’s Funeral” must first determine the poem’s stance toward Churchill and his funeral. Churchill almost single-handedly rallied the British people to resist the aggression of Nazi Germany. His funeral is therefore the end of an era as well as a recapitulatory celebration of the victory over fascism. Hill’s sketching of the damaged churches, however, implies that healing from the war will not be as total as it might seem to those who conveniently forget history in their pursuit of the pleasures of the present. Churchill’s funeral also calls to mind the end of the British Empire, which had crumbled rapidly as many of Britain’s colonies were given independence after the war. In earlier poems such as “An Apology for the Revival of Christian Architecture in England” (1978), which has a subsection entitled “A Short History of the British in India,” Hill has very subtly and ambiguously considered the theme of British imperialism, so the end of empire could certainly be an aspect of Hill’s interest in Churchill. In this light, the “last salvo of poppies” could refer not only to mourning but also to the last manifestation of traditional British valor as seen in Churchill’s attitude toward empire and war.

Hill’s interest here, though, lies less with Churchill himself than in how Churchill’s funeral provides a point of closure for the many deaths suffered in the bombing of London. Churchill’s funeral takes place in a great old London church, which recalls the many churches devastated in the war Churchill fought. In the epigraphs surrounding the poem’s sections, Hill quotes such earlier British poets as William Blake and John Milton, both associated with a Protestant democratic optimism. Hill implies that this vision is what saw Britain through the war but also that the carnage of war to some degree mocks and satirizes the utopian aspects of the earlier poets’ thought. For the ordinary Londoner killed in the bombing, no amount of utopian rhetoric can provide compensation, despite the nobility of the ideals associated with Britain during the war and throughout Britain’s history.

Ultimately Hill’s stance toward Churchill is unclear. It seems generally admiring, but he is at pains to focus on the ordinary victims of the bombings who did not have Churchill’s fame or position of privilege. This focus may be partly attributable to the fact that Hill was a young boy during World War II. To a certain extent he is pleading that the immediate impact of wartime death not be swept under the rug in a search for reconciliation or transcendence.