“Churchill’s Funeral” is a poem in five sections. The poem begins by flashing back to London during World War II. The stained-glass windows of the great churches of London have been damaged by German bombing. The people inside the churches, or those who are seeking to rescue the victims, have been wounded, maimed, or killed. There is a curious nobility about their deaths, however, a grandeur equal to the devastated beauty of the churches. This nobility is brought to mind, years later, by the state funeral of former British prime minister Winston Churchill at St. Paul’s Cathedral in January, 1965.
The second section begins to explore the poem’s theme in depth. The innocent soul—that exempt from politics or worldly damage—has a guilty twin, involved in both giving the laws and violating them. In the third stanza of the second section, “res publica” means “public thing” in Latin (it provides the origin for the English word “republic”). “Res publica” is usually spoken of as something positive, but the poem sees it as responsible for both war and those who seek to restore peace. Toward the end of the section, the benevolent aspects of the res publica are emphasized, “fierce tea-making/ in time of war” signifying a kind of healthy respect for custom and triviality in the midst of crisis, then, even more directly, praise of the “courage and kindness” that, for no other reason than a simple dedication to what is right, kept the faith in the midst of the Nazi attacks. These virtues are seen as those of ordinary people, beyond the grasp of the “maestros of the world” who dominate political affairs.
The third section begins with an epigraph from eighteenth century poet William Blake. “Lambeth,” a London ecclesiastical building that is home to the archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Church of England, is “the house of the lamb” if one considers both Hebrew and English etymologies (not its literal etymology, but one coined by the poet). Yet lambs symbolize peace, and if Lambeth is bombed in wartime, then it can be no more the house of the lamb. A catafalque is a hearse for use in carrying the dead at a funeral; the droning Heinkels (German bombers) render the scene a kind of ghastly performance in which Fame, personified as a woman, renders the meek victims of the past morally victorious even as they die; their reputation will long survive their deaths, as, inferentially, will that of the more visibly famous Churchill.
The fourth section commemorates three specific London churches damaged in the wartime bombings. All the churches are dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin, and symbolism of Mary (as the “Pietà” or mourning mother) is juxtaposed with the survival of ragwort and other lowly weeds after the blast to show that both grand and simple things help sustain the human spirit in a time of crisis.
The final section shows the city after wartime, recovering from the destruction. The hour of the valorous poor who were victims of the blast is over; in peacetime, ordinary hierarchies return. “The last salvo of poppies” at the end of the poem refers to the red flowers placed on wartime graves. The image is a tribute to the spirit of sacrifice that saved democracy during the two world wars. Yet it is also a questioning of the cost, the innocent human life that was sacrificed. Even after Churchill’s funeral and all that it signifies, will the victims of the war ever be fully recompensed in spirit?
Forms and Devices
The poem is written in stanzas of four lines each; the poem’s five individual sections have as few as four of these stanzas or as many as seven. There is little direct rhyme in the poem, though Hill, a master prosodist, often uses assonance or verbal echo to give his words a certain ring or to create undertones. In the last stanza, the presence of “bones” and “poppies” at the end of the second and fourth lines respectively produces a kinship of sound, in the repetition of the “-es,” that juxtaposes the bones and poppies in a way that makes the final image meaningful to the reader. The beauty of the poppies attempts to cover the horror and symbolic poverty of the bare bones, but in a sense the poppies are no more than the bones’ external manifestation. Were it not for the dead bones, there would be no need for poppies as a symbol of mourning. Hill’s verbal juxtapositions make the reader think about the underlying issues of the poem.
The poet never makes an explicit declaration of his theme, allowing the reader to piece together the poem’s overall thrust from hints and images. This being so, each image, even each word, gains more importance and seems chosen by the poet with exquisite, almost excruciating, care. Hill sometimes uses very common words, but he also includes very obscure words in his diction—words such as “lourd,” which is not in most standard English dictionaries, being the French word for “heavy.” More characteristic are words such as “catafalque,” a rather formal and obscure English word. Hill’s verse is dense with meaning, each small stanza packed with resonance and reverberation.
Another device that calls attention to each individual word is Hill’s use of space on the page. Despite the erudition and density of Hill’s verse, it is actually very spare, not taking up much of a page. There is therefore a great deal of “negative space,” of whiteness on the paper, which serves to concentrate the reader’s attention on the bare words themselves.
The poem is not a direct narrative; indeed, in the tradition of elegy, it is far more meditation than narration. Each section of the poem is like a scene in a play or, more apposite to the poem, one of a series of stained-glass windows on a linked theme. At times, as in the second section, the focus is broad and public. At others, as in the fourth section, the one devoted to Mary, the poet contracts his focus and looks at a particular section of the entire tableau. It is notable that Churchill himself never makes a direct appearance in the poem, even though it is ostensibly concerned with his funeral. This is typical of Hill’s oblique and indirect approach to his material.