February 24, 2007 at 11:41 pm 4 comments

W H Auden


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.

Certainty, fidelity
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 our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.

Okay, okay, so everyone knows this one. If there is any poem of Auden’s more hackneyed, more commonly quoted than Funeral Blues, it is Lullaby.

But Lullaby remains, for me, not just one of Auden’s most beautiful poems but one of the most beautiful love poems ever written. What I love about it is its refusal to compromise – its refusal to slip into either lying sentimentality or fashionable cynicism. As a poem it is both a negation of love poetry and an intense celebration of love – a winnowing of sentiment from emotion that few poems can match. Auden does not ask us to accept our limitations, he urges us to embrace them, because it is only in the knowledge of its mutability that what we experience comes to be precious. But this is only part of the story. In its realistic magic, in its unflinching humanism, this is not just a love poem, it is, in a strange and indefinable way an agenda for modern poetry – the standard by which a truly great poem is measured. For what more can we ask from verse than that it “find our mortal world enough” and how few of the poems we write, or, for that matter, the lives we live, can pass that test.

More than its message, though, what moves me about this poem are the phrases, the words, the soft perfection of the tone. Every line of this poem (well, okay, every line of stanzas 1,3 and 4 – I’m not that fond of stanza 2) is magical, incantatory, filled with a sense of inexpressible meaning, capable of connecting directly to the imagination. Auden’s short lines conjure a world of images. How else to explain why “nights of insult” sounds so evocative, why, when Auden says “every farthing of the cost / all the dreaded cards foretell / shall be paid” we never stop to ask what cost? what cards? and for what crime? Auden’s greatness as a poet is that he does not need to explain this, that he connects to the reader in so fundamental a way that we know already what he means, that we understand him perfectly, even though nothing is spelled out. Eliot, in a dedication to his wife, speaks of lovers “Who think the same thoughts without need of speech”. Auden’s poems seldom say much, but for those of us who love him, the way he says it sounds so exactly right, connects to so much more inside us, expresses so much of what is left unspoken.



Entry filed under: English, Falstaff, Wystan Hugh Auden.

Funeral Blues The Windhover

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Reading the Brothers Grimm to Jenny « pō’ĭ-trē  |  May 25, 2007 at 2:34 am

    […] time I read this poem, I’m reminded of Auden’s Lullaby. Perhaps because here too we see the counterpoint between frailty and feeling, between the […]

  • 2. Lullaby | The Strathmore LitSpace  |  April 20, 2008 at 3:54 am

    […] Another link that may be useful for “Lay your sleeping head, my love” is the Audio Poetry blog I directed you to last week. This time, the reading itself is not great – this particular reader (not Auden) has an unusual manner of speech which distracted me while listening to it. However, the discussion of the poem is very interesting – well worth reading. Check it by following this link. […]

  • 3. Martin Mellish  |  December 7, 2008 at 3:22 am

    I like stanza 2 – pointing out the paradoxical relationship between the sensual and sacred – the sacredness of sensuality accepted, and the sensuality of spiritual experience.

  • 4. Funeral Readings  |  December 26, 2008 at 3:19 pm

    Beautiful poem. Thanks


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