Alba is often related to the aubade but serves a different purpose. These poems feature specific subject matter, detailing two lovers who spent the night together but have to separate for fear of someone finding out what they were doing. These poems were composed and sung by troubadours during the Medieval period in France.
Definition of Alba
When reading an alba, readers shouldn’t be surprised to come across knights, ladies of different households, servants, and sentries or guards. The latter is known as the “guaita.” They serve a very specific purpose in the poem’s narrative. It’s their job to warn the lovers that it’s dawn, the hour to separate. It’s time for the two to go their separate ways. Without this character to keep track of time, the two lovers would be caught together.
The word “alba” comes from the Old Occitan meaning “sunrise.” This is a direct connection to the time of day that triggers the main subject of this kind of poem.
What is Old Occitan?
The phrase “Old Occitan” refers to the earliest form of Occitano-Romance languages. That is, writing that dated from the 8th century through the 14th. It was the language used by the troubadours, the composers, and performers closely associated with the creation of albas and aubades. The language can be separated into three categories, high, middle, and low, and was incredibly influential on the development of lyric poetry.
Examples of Alba
Gaita be gaiteta del castel by Raimbaut de Vaqueiras
‘Gaita be gaiteta del castel’ is a great example of a profane alba. It includes a refrain, “the dawn, alas, the dawn!” or “L’alba, oi l’alba,” (in the original), that is commonly found in albas and aubades to this day. He addresses the dawn, personifying it, and mourns the fact that it comes so soon. In the fourth stanza, the speaker addresses the “Lady,” his lover. In English, the passage reads:
Lady, farewell, since I cannot stay any longer;
I must leave, in spite of myself.
How it grieves me, the dawn
which I see coming forth so quickly;
the dawn, alas, the dawn!
The full translated version of the poem can be read here.
Us cavalier si jazia by Bertran d’Alamanon or Gaucelm Faidit
‘Us cavalier si jazia’ is another example of a profane alba. It was written by either Bertran d’Alamanon or Gaucelm Faidit. They were both troubadours. The former was an ambassador of the court of the Count of Provence and the latter was from a family of knights and may have taken part in the Fourth Crusade. The poem takes a familiar form, separated out into stanzas and addressing the arrival of dawn, the man’s sorrow at leaving his lover, and irritation with the fact that he was disturbed, to begin with.
S’anc fui belha ni prezada by Cadenet
’S’anc fui belha ni prezada’ is a profane alba that clearly uses dialogue between the lover and the watch. This is a perfect example of how the role of guaita was incorporated into poems. They often played a bigger role in the narrative than the woman the man is leaving. Consider the first stanza (in its translated English form):
If I ever was beautiful and worthy,
I have now fallen into disgrace
for I have been given to a villain
only for his great wealth;
and I should die
if I didn’t have a fine friend
to whom I tell of my despair,
and a complacent watch
to sing the coming of the dawn.
The lover is addressing his state of being and the fact that he has a “complacent watch” who is there to tell him with the dawn has arrived. The watch responds by saying he doesn’t want a “loyal love” so he watches the day. He says that he’s happy to tell the lover, or:
he who lies with his friend,
let him take his leave sincerely
kissing and hugging,
for I see the dawn coming.
The dialogue goes back and forth, with the first, fifth, and seventh stanzas belonging to the lover and the others, second, third, fourth, and sixth belonging to the watch.
Read the full translation and listen to the original melody here.
Alba or Aubade?
These two genres of poetry are often confused with one another and are sometimes used interchangeably. They are incredibly similar, but there are a few ways the two poems differ. For example, the aubade is sung to a sleeping woman as the other departs at dawn. The alba, on the other hand, is a conversation between the two lovers, and sometimes the guaita, or guard. Both of these kinds of poems date back to the troubadours of the Middle Ages. Below is an example of a famous aubade:
The Sun Rising by John Donne
In this lovely poem, John Donne’s speaker addresses the sun, asking it why it came to disturb him and his partner. He calls the sun names, insulting it and expressing anger over its arrival. He also tells it to go do something else, like tell the king’s hunting party it’s time to ride out and hunt. Anything would be better than disturbing him and his lover. Here are the first four lines of the last stanza:
She’s all states, and all princes, I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
In this stanza, he addresses his lover and the perfection of their relationship. In the end, he refers to the bedroom as the whole world. Readers can draw a distinction between this poem and an alba due to the fact that the woman never says anything to her partner. She’s sleeping while he mourns the fact that it’s time to leave.
Read more John Donne poems.
Alba or Tagelied?
The Tagelied is another medieval form of poetry, but one that developed in the German language. The word “tagelied” translates to “dawn song.” The German counterpart to the troubadour, the Minnesinger, wrote and performed these songs. They depict, as the albas do, the separation of lovers at the break of day. The most popular version of the song, the Wächterlied (watchman’s song), features the German version of the guaita. Some of the writers who composed Tagelieds include Oswald von Wolkenstein and Wolfram von Eschenbach. They influenced subsequent, far more modern writers, like Rainer Maria Rilke and others.
A standard version of this kind of poem will feature the dawn of a new day, the watchman warning the couple it’s time to separate, the man mourning the separation, and the woman finally telling the man that it’s okay, and he needs to go on his way. Sometimes, the man will express anger at the watchman for being the bearer of bad news.
A troubadour was a poet/musician who wrote and performed songs in 11th and 12th century France. These poets were skilled writers who often wrote on topics like love. The first troubadour, known in the historical record, was Guilhem de Peiteu.
Today, we commonly regard albas and aubades as poems. But, when they were composed these lyrics were sung. They were composed and performed by troubadours who traveled and shared their compositions with different audiences.
A trouvère, in contrast to a troubadour, was a lyric poet who wrote in the northern French dialect. The first known trouvère was Chrétien de Troyes. They were fairly widespread until around 1300. These writers were influenced by the troubadours.
To write an alba, you have to have a dialogue between two lovers and a guard or watchman who notifies them that it’s time to part. You might want to use personification to address the dawn, love, or another element. One lover often expresses anger about the separation and the other has to accept the parting is necessary.
Albas usually have a mournful tone. But, as the poem progresses, it becomes more accepting and loving as the characters accept that they need to part for their own good.
Related Literary Terms
- Epitaph: a short lyric written in memory of someone who has died. Sometimes, epitaphs serve as elegies.
- Lyric Poem: a musically inclined, short verse that speaks on poignant and powerful emotions.
- Ode: a formal lyric poem that is written in celebration or dedication. They are generally directed with specific intent.
- Paean: expresses thanks, elation, or triumph through the form of a song or lyrical poem.
- Rondel: has two quatrains that are followed by a quintet, a set of five lines. The verse form has its origins in lyric poetry of 14th-century France.
- Read: ‘Alba’ by Ezra Pound
- Listen: ‘Aubade,’ read by Philip Larkin
- Watch: Female Troubadours of the Middle Ages