Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 637

It has been said of Empson’s poetry that it provides the reader with the sensation of feeling sure that the poem is good, both aesthetically and intellectually, without the reader quite knowing what it means. This is not so severely the case with “Aubade,” which could be described as being only occasionally, only seemingly, meaningless. At the most obvious level, it is what it says it is: an aubade, a love song on the necessity of the loved one to steal home, not because the night is over, but because everyone’s sleep has been disturbed by an earthquake which may also have disturbed the unsuspecting husband who may notice the absence of his wife. Lovers in aubades usually complain about the intrusion of the light; in this case, a much more unusual and more destructive aspect of nature has intruded on the bliss of the lovers.

As is always the case, the lovers are reluctant to part; they are made aware of the facts of life, however, and are sufficiently cautious not to flaunt them. If they are to continue their affair, they must be careful—and that is one of the meanings of the “heart of standing” line. They must not do anything too romantic, which seems to be the meaning of the first use of the line and, perhaps, the second one, where the necessity of providing a solid lie is recognized. The third time the line appears, it may suggest something of a variation on that idea: that they can do no more than keep still until they know the consequences of their conduct. When it appears in the criticism of their conduct, it may be a repudiation of more serious worldwide matters, which proves how deeply they love—real lovers are proven to be so by their refusal to be distracted by the troubles of the outside world. Its last use is a rejection of the idea that their racial differences make it necessary for them to part and for the lover to leave and end the affair. Empson indulges in a very subtle manipulation of the idea of rising that any Metaphysical poet would immediately understand. The statement in itself has an obvious meaning: It would be the wisest thing for the two lovers to part. Yet that must be seen in the light of the other statement about the “heart of standing,” precluding flight. It, too, is at first sight, simple. Obviously, one who stands cannot fly, but it can also mean that the heart (the lover) of standing (integrity) would not desert the loved one. Getting up to go, therefore, is not possible in the long run, though it may be necessary once in a while to protect the lovers from detection. “Standing” is character in action.

In the last stanza, however, it assumes the complicated, tricky reasoning of the Metaphysicals. One might get “up” to go, but there is another kind of “rising” which contradicts that retreat: the “rising” of erotic desire, where “up” is related to the heart, not the mind, and confirms the determination not to fly, but to remain with the loved one whatever the consequences. “Standing” now has a sexual implication.

This is not necessarily the only reading of the poem; it is a reading that attempts to make sense of the ambiguities in a way that is consistent with the more obviously factual elements in the work. It is possible to read this poem as a simple aubade and rationalization of an affair without worrying too fastidiously about what some of the more gnomic lines mean. The poem will work as poetry with a reasonable amount of “sense” even if the lines of ambiguity are taken as found, as bits of anarchic musing, tonally supporting the situation of ardor, uncertainty, and insecurity.

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