By W. H. Auden – 1907-1973
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
W. H. Auden’s “Lullaby” is an example of a love poem, but there are several things worth noting about it. A lullaby is, of course, a song sung to soothe someone to sleep, especially a baby or young child. Immediately, in that famous opening line (“Lay your sleeping head, my love …”), Auden challenges our expectations of the lullaby: the person he addresses is a lover rather than a child, and he is addressing him while he is already asleep. Auden was a gay man when being gay was still criminalized in Britain, and the person Auden is addressing is another man. When Auden wrote “Lullaby,” he was trying to seduce the composer Benjamin Britten (who was also gay). Auden and Britten collaborated on several projects together, although it seems probable that Auden never managed to effect a partnership with Britten on a romantic plane.
Whether or not Britten was the intended recipient, Auden challenges some of the conventions of a love poem in “Lullaby.” In that second line, He describes himself as “faithless,” suggesting he is someone who has lost faith in “love” as an idea but is nevertheless committed to living in this moment with his beloved. “Faithless” summons its opposite, “faithful,” which is confirmed when the poet says that both certainty and “fidelity” disappear at “the stroke of midnight.” This line suggests this might only be a casual fling between two lovers, but a fling whose passions are being intensely felt at the moment in time that the poem relates to us.
In the first stanza, Auden addresses his lover as he sleeps with his head on Auden’s arm. Auden knows that beauty is fleeting: time and illness destroy the beauty of youth, and death soon arrives to prove that the young are not young (“the child”) for long. Our life span is soon over. But what matters is the here and now. Auden then addresses someone else, a higher power, and asks that this “living creature” be allowed to remain in his arms until morning. Auden is aware that the “creature” he loves is but a mere mortal. His lover is not perfect but is “guilty’ of man’s sins and moral flaws. However, to him, his lover is beautiful.
In the second stanza, Auden turns to more supernatural and divine ideas of love. The syntax and punctuation are more complex here, but Auden is saying that lovers who lie upon the “slope” or hill of Venus are sent a “grave” vision by the goddess, who is a vision of “universal” love. Auden uses the word “grave” because it is deeply felt and deeply serious. For the poet, love is one of the most essential things in our lives. Even the “hermit,” living alone and cut off from society, is affected by love: the “glaciers” and “rocks” of his stone-cold heart can also be thawed and warmed by love’s power.
In the third stanza, Auden continues to elevate “this night” as significant and filled with meaning for him. Certainty and fidelity are both fleeting and pass like the tolling of a bell. Auden knows that everything that has to be paid will be paid. But what matters is this night, and he wants to set to memory every moment of it. The reference to the “pedantic boring cry” of “fashionable madmen” is not fully understood but is probably, given the poem’s 1930s context, an allusion to Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, and other political leaders. In ‘The poem, “September 1, 1939,” Auden refers to Hitler as a “psychopathic god.” There’s also possibly a recollection of John Donne’s poem “The Sun Rising,” which begins with Donne lying in bed with his lover at the “break of day” and reprimanding the sun as a “saucy pedantic wretch” for shining through the curtains and telling him and his lover they have to get up.
In the final stanza of “Lullaby,” Auden continues the sentiment seen in the previous stanza in which all things must pass. He picks up on three things already explicitly mentioned: the “beauty” of his lover, the “stroke of midnight,” and the “vision” that Venus sends to lovers lying in post-coital bliss on her ancient hill. If morning must come—as he knows it must—Auden asks that it at least be the dawn of a day which offers hope and blessing to the two lovers. The poem is hopeful, but throughout, Auden remains aware of the fragility and impermanence of all human relationships. A person we care for deeply can be taken from us at any moment.