Stopping Clocks with W.H. Auden: A Note for Martha

Martha must have been a larger than life lady at one time. As she lay quivering on the pale blue sheets, I could see there was extra skin on her emaciated arms. Where the breathing mask pressed against her face the flesh rippled out across her cheeks. When even the pure oxygen was not enough for her pneumonia-ridden lungs, air whistled in around the mask to fill her heaving chest. And when she exhaled, the room was filled with a flat, tuba song that made passersby raise their eyebrows.

Martha, named for the patron of this 70s decorated Catholic hospital, must have been a handsome woman at one time. When I first arrived in the room, she had a bright smile for the nurses who cared so tenderly for her. She looked very small in the bed, surrounded by a large stuffed bear and a prince’s allocation of pillows. The nurses leaned in and spoke loudly, for Martha could not hear very well.

“How are you feeling, Martha?” they would ask.

“Oh, I’m fine,” she would answer. “Who is on tonight?”

“I think Megan is your night nurse, Martha.”

“Oh, that’s nice dear.”

A gentle conversation at a very high decibel.

Martha could not hear very well, and she could no longer see very well. She had a large wall clock on her bed so that she could tell the time. I joked that Flavor Flav was in the next bed over, but no one got the joke. Or perhaps it wasn’t very funny.

Time seems to spread slowly in hospital rooms, as if the normal allotment of sixty seconds a minute is out of balance. In the few hours since I arrived at St. Martha’s, it was clear that dear Martha in the next bed over was no longer as connected to real time as she once was. Her days and nights were upside down. Martha was losing her place. Perhaps, I wondered, I was borrowing some of the time each hour that Martha had left over.

It was a rough night. In her discomfort, Martha kept pulling off her mask, and the bed alarm kept going off. At one point she was gripping the call button so hard the nurses could not pull her fingers away from it. At another point she had wedged herself between the mattress and the bed and gargled out in panic.

It was a rough night for everyone.

To say that Martha did not have any visitors is not true, at least from her perspective. The nurses could not remember any family, but someone had brought her the stuffed bear. Although the hospital room remained empty, by mid-morning of the second day Martha’s world was becoming crowded. Between long, morphine-induced naps, Martha carried on a lively conversation.

“Oh dear,” she cried out. “Do put that down.” “Be careful now!” she warned. She laughed and laughed, though I could not catch what the joke had been about. And then,

“Oh Stephanie! It’s you. I didn’t recognize you. I thought I had lost you forever.”

Her voice was filled with delight.

In about 30 hours Martha had gone from being a lively conversation partner to being a periodic coma patient. As I shuffled past Martha’s bed, I looked down at her large Flavor Flav clock. I was puzzled for a moment as I tried to account for my day. Had time drifted even further than I thought? A quick look at my phone cleared up my confusion.

Martha’s clock had stopped. Her batteries had run out.

A few hours later Martha slipped away. Nurses came into the room and took her away. An orderly put new pale blue sheets on the cot.

As I was thinking about Martha’s time running out, I thought about W.H. Auden’s poem, “Funeral Blues,” better known as “Stop All the Clocks.” Auden was a friend of the Inklings, and one of the earlier critical thinkers about fantasy (see his Secondary Worlds lectures). A powerful poet, Auden was part of the inter-war generation of Oxford writers who leaned toward an Anglo-Catholic faith.

Lacking any literary pretention, and unapologetic in passion, “Stop All the Clocks” has always stirred me. Though it is part of a larger cycle of poetry, here is the part I know:

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 crêpe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen 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 for ever: 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 wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.

This poem has, for me, the shocking absurdity of a mourner’s grief at its most honest. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear,” C.S. Lewis said in the first words of his memoir of mourning, A Grief Observed. On clear days, when his mind was sharp and depression was in its insufficient pen, Auden would not have said it like this. He might have talked about the eternal tendrils of earthly love. He may have talked about hope—as Lewis did near the close of A Grief Observed. But in this moment, there is nothing absurd about expecting the earth to stop spinning, for the universe itself has dimmed.

So I think of dear Martha’s wall clock, resting on the pale blue sheets and stuck forever at twenty past two.

At the death of Martha I did not feel as Auden or Lewis did about the loss of their lovers. Honestly, I felt nothing at all, except that solemn sense of eternity one feels in the presence of death.

It is, perhaps, a little ridiculous to read Auden when thinking of a women I never knew.

But there is no one else to write odes to Martha. She had felt the way Auden felt, I’m sure. When Stephanie—her daughter? her sister? a friend?—left her “forever,” I’m sure Martha would have felt like she was without compass and in no need of the time that loiters stubbornly in times of grief. Martha once lived, and encompassed others in her love. She lit the sky for someone once, I think.

And though they are all gone, I believe it is okay to speak for those that have loved Martha.

I won’t go to Martha’s funeral. It will, no doubt, be led by Father McKenzie. I can see him now wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave, leaving Martha in the older part of the cemetery where her long-dead husband lies in waiting. All the mourning for Martha, perhaps, will come from religious duty.

But for those of us who have felt real loss, Auden’s words have the ring of truth. I know of no reading as poignant as that of John Hannah in 4 Weddings and a Funeral. It is a beautiful, off-putting, contrastive, painful reading.

This note is for Martha.


About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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15 Responses to Stopping Clocks with W.H. Auden: A Note for Martha

  1. Beautiful thoughts. I love Auden’s poem.

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. keebslac1234 says:

    It is sobering reading this in the second year of COVID-19. Musings such as this help remember those that pass in clinical surroundings. Those that chance on this post will glimpse a bit of Martha, something more than a statistic. Good stuff.
    I did get the reference to Flavor Flav. First thought was death and Public Enemy: “Don’t believe the hype.”

    Liked by 1 person

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