Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Aubade” articulates an ancient poetic theme, one expressed by the Latin tag timor mortis conturbat me (“the fear of death confounds me”). This tag appears as a refrain in a number of medieval poems, such as the lyric by William Dunbar known as “Lament for the Makars” (1508). The tag alludes to the brevity of life in the Middle Ages and to the hope in an eternal afterlife in heaven that will console humanity for the harshness of the mortal world.

However, the terror of death as expressed in “Aubade” has quite a different origin. The speaker’s emotional predicament is not the result of the threats of disease, war, or social collapse, those constants of medieval life. It is the result of the unprecedented conditions of individual existence in the late twentieth century, relatively secure in the physical sense but assailed mentally and spiritually by a profound sense of loneliness and desolation.

The title “Aubade” points ironically to the speaker’s predicament. He awakes alone, having no beloved to share his existence. When the sun eventually rises to dispel the literal darkness, it casts no warmth or enlightenment. “An only life” is all he has. When parted from it, as he must be by “unresting death,” he will be nothing, nowhere, erased forever. Secular, scientific skepticism has produced an “intricate rented world” that people inhabit temporarily, which is typically urban and technologically...

(The entire section is 495 words.)