I’m stealing some writing I did as an exemplar for my grade 12 university prep English class. We were focusing on a close reading of the poem, and making personal connections beyond just “I like it”. There was also a small research component. I’ve edited it and added a hyperlink to the poem.
W. H. Auden wrote “Lullaby” in 1937 and published it in 1940’s Another Time (Kaveney). It is essentially a love poem, but with a more realistic outlook than most. The poet seems to be suggesting that even given the mortality and humanity of the lovers, there is some hope for them yet.
It’s one of my favourite poems of all time. In fact, I love a lot of Auden’s work. He deals with themes related to humanism, our place in the world, and love. I enjoy this poem so much that I chose it as the reading at our wedding. Although nobody probably understood it at the time, I certainly loved hearing it read.
The first stanza begins with the speaker addressing his lover using second person, which I usually don’t like, but in this case it brings an intimacy to the poem that is entirely appropriate. The first two lines are captivating: “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm;” (1-2). I enjoy the ambiguity of the word “faithless”. Is the lover not faithful? Is he an atheist? I prefer to think of the latter. By using the word “human” he reinforces the mortality of the two. As an atheist myself, I like to see references to humanism and atheism in works of literature.
These references to humanity continue with the final lines of the first stanza where the speaker says, “Let the living creature lie, / Mortal, guilty, but to me / The entirely beautiful.” (8-10). Indeed, the speaker does not love him despite his mortality and guilt, but the implication is rather that he does so because of those qualities. There is nothing about his lover that is not beautiful. I love this departure from the typical love poetry where the speaker (usually male) provides a glowing description of all the physical perfections of his (female) lover. There is a sense of hope for the rest of us who are not perfection. I thought it was so fitting for the beginning of a marriage, which if nothing else, is an exercise in accepting a partner’s imperfections and thanking them for accepting yours.
Obviously the title, “Lullaby” brings to mind the concept of the lullaby, traditionally a song sung to a child by a parent to soothe her to sleep. In this case, the lover is already asleep, enjoying what can be assumed to be a post-coital snooze. It’s also a love poem, but with a very different tone. The speaker talks about, “time and fevers [burning] away / individual beauty” and Venus with her “grave” vision (3-4). Not too many love poems speak of death and the grave without the promise of an after-life. In this case, we have to “find the mortal world enough” (36). Even Venus, the goddess of love, is cast in a negative light. In fact, the final stanza where we find that line is in the part of the poem that has become an aubade, a poem at dawn. The night has ended, and typically with the return of day light there is some new hope or a fresh beginning, but also a necessary parting of the ways. We saw Shakespeare play with this in Romeo and Juliet when the two lovers fight over whether it is morning or still evening. Auden ends his aubade with the hope that his lover will be watched over not by some benevolent deity, but by “every human love”, once again giving authority to the mortal rather than the spiritual.
The poem reminds me of the Bob Dylan song “Lay Lady Lay” which also involves a speaker talking to his lover, this time on his “big brass bed”. Similarly, Dylan’s speaker looks forward to seeing her “in the morning light”. Auden’s work has also appeared in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral when one of the characters used it as part of the eulogy for his partner.
Auden was a gay man living during a time when homosexuality was illegal. Although he was not closeted, he did marry a lesbian so she could get a British passport (Kaveney). This poem is not explicitly about a homosexual couple, but there are no pronouns to identify them and it isn’t written in a gendered manner. There are no specific references to details of either lover’s body. In the third stanza, the speaker says, “Every farthing of the cost,/ . . . Shall be paid” (26) which may give us a clue that there are consequences to this love affair. Some people have even suggested that the line about the “hermit’s carnal ecstasy” (20) is a reference to the necessity for gay men and women to be secretive, or hermit-like about their sexuality. Regardless, Auden deals with these issues in this poem and others as he lived his life during a time period of repression.
The final observation I’d like to make about the poem is that the speaker seems to be suggesting that the ideology of the time is not worthy of listening to. He speaks of “fashionable madmen [raising] / their pedantic cry” (24-25). We can read into the word “fashionable” the connotation of changeable. Fashion, after all, comes and goes. What is “fashionable” today may simply be the flavour of the month and not have a lasting value. Indeed, by referring to the speakers as “madmen”, he undermines their words as well. Finally, the word “pedantic” has the negative connotation of some unnecessary attention being paid to details that are unimportant. The speaker’s word choices all create the impression that the beliefs of the time period are incorrect.
Auden, W. H. “Lullaby”. Academy of American Poets. http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/lullaby-0. March
30, 2017 Dylan, Bob. “Lay Lady Lay”. A to Z Lyrics, 2017, http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/bobdylan/layladylay.html.
Kaveney, Roz. “An Introduction to W H Auden’s ‘Lullaby’. Discovering Literature 20th
Century, British Library, 2017. http://www.bl.uk/20th-century-literature/articles/an-introduction-to-w-h-audens-lullaby.