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Posted by on Sep 9, 2009

Poem for the Day: W.H. Auden’s “Lullaby”, Andrew Marvell and Marvin Gaye

Lullaby
by 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.

Is there a better opening line/s in all of poetry than this?

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,

This whole poem is in the spirit of (at least in my interpretation) the gather ye rosebuds while ye may type of poetry. Life is fleeting, love is ephemeral, so enjoy. It is less lustful than Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”, less concerned with the chase, the hunt. Marvell has his own flair for sure in one of my favorite series of verse in the English language:

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv’d virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

That is heady, wild stuff. I have literally made the claim that Andrew Marvell is the 17th century equivalent of Marvin Gaye. Notice the similarities in these lyrics:

We’re all sensitive people
With so much to give
Understand me, sugar
Since we got to be
Let’s live
I love you

There’s nothin’ wrong
With me lovin’ you
Baby, no, no
And givin’ yourself to me can never be wrong
If the love is true
Oh, babe, ooh, ooh

Don’t you know
How sweet and wonderful life can be?
Whoo-ooh
I’m askin’ you, baby
To get it on with me
Ooh, ooh, ooh

Oh, and please, please check out the live version from the 1970s. The man simply knows how to work a crowd.


I couldn’t resist; I had to embed the video.

Marvell and Gaye want to tear this rough strife; Auden just wants to lay there together through the night. He is calmer, more accepting. Even his choice of words is more human, less exultant: mortal, ordinary, even boring. It is stunning, but like a lot of Auden if you aren’t paying attention it will zoom right past the reader. His spice, flair is subtle. If he were a wine, he would be a Bordeaux and people would invent silly words to describe him like busy and precocious. Either way, be sure to give his poetry a read.

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3 Comments

  1. Auden’s poem lives in the real–as opposed to the exalted and idealised–world. This is someone who knows human frailty and the pain of betrayal, yet chooses to love anyway, ruefully.

    And since we’re on the subject of pop music, I’ll say that
    “But in my arms till break of day
    Let the living creature lie,
    Mortal, guilty, but to me
    The entirely beautiful.”

    has always reminded me of U2’s “All I Want Is You”:

    “All the promises we break
    From the cradle to the grave
    When all I want is you.”

  2. Good connection to Auden and U2 here; well played. I think poetry and lyrics have unlimited connections as they deal with beauty, truth, core principles of human emotional interaction. Thanks for the comment as it makes me think I need to write a few more posts about poetry.

  3. Thanks for replying to my comment. 🙂
    I like the recasting of Marvin Gaye as a 20th century parallel to poets such as Melville–heck, you can make a connection going back to the medieval troubadours, probably.
    More poetry posts would be great!

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