‘Lullaby’ by W.H. Auden is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of ten lines. The piece follows an imperfect rhyme scheme that is made up of both half and full rhymes. The pattern changes within each stanza. A reader should be able to look through and pick out the moments of half or slant rhyme easily, such as that which exists between lines two and seven, and lines three and eight, in the first stanza. While these words sound similar, they do not match up as closely as they could. Auden made this choice intentionally.
Once one reads the entire piece and realizes that it is one about the imperfection of human beings, the mixed-up non-patterns make sense. Auden has matched his rhymes to his subject matter.
A reader should also take note of the metrical pattern, as it too is imperfect. The poem is written in trochaic tetrameter. This means that the unit of rhythm is made up of one stressed and unstressed syllable, and arranged in sets of four in each line. One might notice when reading through ‘Lullaby’ that one’s natural speaking pattern does not line up with the trochaic feet, this was also a purposeful choice. Auden’s writing, once again, reflects his subject matter.
Summary of Lullaby
The poem begins with the speaker asking that his “love” lay down in his arms and find peace. The two will spend this time together, amongst one another’s faults and flaws, and be truly happy. It will not matter if the world is not perfect, or if there have been lies and mistakes in the past.
Within the second stanza, the speaker describes the power that love has in the world. It allows lovers to move beyond the mundane and disregard the basic elements of human life which bother others.
The poem concludes with the speaker committing to caring for his lover throughout their entire lives. This person will not go hungry, or be plagued by any insult. They will relish their mutual humanity and put no faith in the divine to better their existence.
You can read the full poem here and more poems by W.H. Auden here.
Analysis of Lullaby
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by making a request of his “love.” This person, who is clearly very important to the speaker, is not given any greater description than being the object of his passionate affection. He asks that this person lays their “sleeping” head on his “faithless arm.” Also within these first two lines, he refers to his lover as “Human.” This seems an odd choice at first as it is not exactly a compliment. After reading further, one will realize that he relishes in the imperfections of his own, and his lover’s, being.
The following lines describe the entire world, and the process of living and dying, in a few sweeping phrases. He speaks of how “Time” and one’s “fevers,” passions or troubles, “burn away” one’s childish beauty throughout the process of aging. As one grows and learns more about the true state of the world, their questioning becomes jaded. The “thoughtful[ness]” which once existed runs out.
In addition to these elements of aging, by the time one gets to the grave, the “child” as a state of being, is proved “ephemeral” or as lasting for a very short period. One is only able to appreciate their own youth when faced with death. These factors of life are working against them, but the speaker asks that his lover forget all these things and rest in his arms “till break of day.”
The last three lines of this section are used to refer to human beings, the lover included, as being “guilty” liars who are failingly “Mortal.” These things do not matter to the speaker. He is able to see them within his lover and regard them as “beautiful.”
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes what it is like to be in love, and be part of a couple. Together, he and his lover pass beyond the “bounds” of their “Soul and body.” They have the ability to move past the intrinsic faults of humankind and be part of something larger.
The following lines reference “Venus,” the Roman goddess of love, beauty, and desire. The lovers are able to tap into a more meaningful part of life due to the fact that “Venus sends” visions of “supernatural sympathy” and “love and hope.” They feel a “Universal” desire to love one another and every other being on the planet, even though they are well aware of their own faults.
The final lines of this section describe a “hermit” and the “carnal ecstasy” which comes down as an “insight.” Love is a force that can penetrate all parts of the planet, from rocks to glaciers. It can also awaken even the most forlorn and isolated among humankind.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
At the beginning of this stanza, the speaker returns to a more pessimistic view of humankind. He knows that “certainty” and “fidelity” are features in a relationship which pass at the “stroke of midnight.” They do not last, just like the beauty of childhood.
In amongst the speaker’s descriptions of the failings of humankind, he brings in additional characters. These are “madmen” who are yelling out “pedantic” or obnoxious cries. These words are “boring” to the speaker as they focus on money, or “farthing[s].” They address how one has to pay one dues at the end of their life.
The final lines of this section are more relaxed than those which preceded it. Although the speaker is aware that eventually, death is coming for both him and his lover, he does not care. The “boring” words of the “madmen” cannot touch him now. There is not a “whisper” or “thought” lost in these moments he is holding his sleeping lover. He is taking in, and committing to memory, the “looks” and “kiss[es]” they share.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
In the fourth stanza, the speaker returns to directing his words to his lover. He reiterates the fact he stated previously. First, that “Beauty” cannot last, nor can the “visions” one has in one youth, or even those given by Venus. Although this is the case he wants the best for his lover.
He tells his “love” that he envisions a life that is “Soft” and moves around their “dreaming head” without causing any great disturbance. The days of his lover’s life should evoke “welcome” and “bless[ings]” of goodness. The “mortal world” the two reside in should be enough for both of them. Its intrinsic flaws should not keep one from living a full and wonderfully happy life. Even more so when they are part of a couple as the speaker is.
In the final lines, he commits to caring for his beloved in every way one can be cared for. There will be no moments this person is not “fed” nor times that “insults” will be truly impactful. The speaker’s lover will be “Watched by every human love.” It is clear he does not care for powers beyond the secular. God plays no role in the life the speaker is describing. He will be the sole caretaker of his lover.