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W. H. Auden's Star Rises With 'Weddings' : Britain is quite taken with one of its own exports and the dead poet's society gets a little bit bigger

June 26, 1994|DAVID GRITTEN

LONDON — One of the most memorable sequences in the film "Four Weddings and a Funeral" comes during the funeral of a leading character when actor John Hannah delivers a moving eulogy and recites a W. H. Auden poem at the funeral of his lover.

That poem, "Funeral Blues," with its opening lines "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone/Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone," seems to have struck as much of a chord in England as the charming "Four Weddings and a Funeral" itself, which opened a month ago to rave reviews and huge box office. There is a sudden demand all over England for Auden's works, and his publishers Faber & Faber have rushed out a new anthology, "Tell Me the Truth About Love: Ten Poems by W. H. Auden," a collection of his verse and cabaret songs from the 1930s.

Included, naturally, is "Funeral Blues." On the book's cover is Hugh Grant, star of "Four Weddings and a Funeral," leaning against a stone column in a church and looking mournful. Sales figures are not yet available, but booksellers cheerfully report the volume is flying off the shelves of their stores.

The first two of the four stanzas of "Funeral Blues" were originally included in Auden's 1936 play with his longtime collaborator Christopher Isherwood, "The Ascent of F6." Auden then rewrote the poem and offered it to singer Hedli Anderson as a cabaret song.

Auden (1907-73) was born in England but settled in the United States in 1939, becoming a citizen in 1946. He finally returned to live in Britain in 1972 and became a professor of poetry at Oxford.

Auden, as it happens, wrote verse for film in his lifetime. In 1935 he joined documentary director John Grierson and composed the poem "Night Mail" to accompany footage of a mail train hurtling along a track: "This is the Night Mail crossing the border/Bringing the check and the postal order/Letters for the rich, letters for the poor/The shop at the corner, the girl next door." The rhythm of the verse imitates that of the train.

The unlikely reawakening of interest in Auden is testament to the success in England of "Four Weddings," the biggest box-office hit for a British film in years. It has been No. 1 at the box office since its opening here on May 1 and to date has taken in more than $21 million--which represents 40% of the box-office take of the top 15 films now showing.

Unlike some British films--notably those from the Merchant Ivory team--which suffer a critical backlash in their homeland for their success, most commentators here have been genuinely pleased by the popularity of "Four Weddings." One of the most remarkable aspects of the film's success is its broad appeal: Blue-collar audiences enthuse about it as much as the art-house crowd.

This was proved beyond all doubt when the Sun, Britain's leading sensationalist tabloid, launched a free reader offer for the new Faber & Faber Collection. A news story about Auden's work being back in fashion ran beneath the headline: "Dead poet is groovy/due to hit movie."

It is thought unlikely that the Sun's editors recalled Auden's homosexuality or his communist sympathies, neither of which would have endeared him to the tabloid.

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