The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

An aubade is a poem of love, usually sung by lovers at dawn after a night together. There is no fixed form for an aubade, and William Empson has chosen to use four sets of alternating five-and three-line stanzas, followed by two five-line stanzas with which the poem concludes.

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Empson spent the 1930’s as a university lecturer in Japan and China, and the poem seems to be set in the Far East. At some time in the middle of the night an earthquake is felt; the lovers are shaken awake by the first tremor, which is followed by a stronger quake. They decide to get up and part. There is some suggestion that the male lover would like harm to come to some others through the quake, and there is the first appearance of the ambiguous line, “The heart of standing is you cannot fly.”

The woman dresses, and the male lover, the writer or voice of the poem, who sees himself as apprehensively insecure (a “guarded tourist”), suggests that she might want to leave through the garden, obviously to avoid being seen. This amuses the woman, who is clearly more secure; she will take a taxi, and he will go back to bed. Before she leaves they discuss as well as they can, since they seem to have a bit of a language problem, how she will deal with her husband. It is now obvious that the relationship is adulterous and that they are of different races. She makes it clear that she is not worried about the earthquake and the deaths it might have caused, but that her husband, who might also have been disturbed and might be calling for her, might discover that she is missing. The lover goes back to sleep, hoping that while he sleeps all their problems will be solved.

Guilty but defensive, he imagines that he is being chided for his selfishness in carrying on an illicit love affair when politics in Europe are so dangerous (it is the 1930’s, the time of the spread of Fascism). He goes on rhetorically to reject the political, personal, and natural troubles of both East and West, seeing in the Japanese intrusions into Manchuria only another version of the same things that are happening in Europe. He does not care; what matters is his love affair.

The rejection of imagined advice and criticism is brought to a personal level as he imagines the criticism naturally arising from an affair between lovers of different races. He admits that, as in the case of the earthquake, the wisest thing would be to get out of the affair before the matter gets out of hand, but the poem ends with a repetition of the “heart of standing” line, which by now clearly suggests that he will remain and continue the relationship. What begins, then, as a description of incidents occurring as a result of a middle-of-the-night earthquake and the parting of two lovers to avoid possible discovery, develops, in the last four stanzas of the poem, into a monologue in which the male lover—guilty, apprehensive, and defensive—rationalizes their conduct set against the wider problems of the world; he refuses either to abandon his love or to allow its importance to him to be debased.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763

The aubade has a long history in European poetry; it can be found in France, and particularly in Provence, by the end of the twelfth century, and has always had a touch of impropriety about it in its suggestion of secret assignation and regret as the lovers must part as the light of day comes on. Sometimes there is a husband to be deceived; sometimes it is simply a matter of sexual congress outside wedlock. It can use a wide tonal range and often ranges from celebration, through chagrin, to torment. Empson chooses to mix the form with two other interests which often appear in his poetry. The second half of the poem is strongly indebted to his admiration for the problem poems of John Donne, in which the enthusiasm of the male lover is rhetorically attacked by an outside voice and provides the lover with the opportunity to “argufy” in poetry, as Empson put it. This poem makes use of the disastrous nature of natural calamities, such as earthquake and flood, to diminish the importance of the love affair, but also makes use of the serious political and military adventures of the 1930’s (which were to lead eventually to World War II in 1939)—not without some pertinence, since this is an affair between a Caucasian and an Oriental.

Another element in the poem, for which Empson is also strongly indebted to John Donne and the Metaphysical poets in general, is the ambiguity of the language. Empson’s main reputation is as a critic, and in his most famous book, appropriately named Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), he explores the way in which literary artists use words and phrases which have, quite deliberately, more than one meaning, and may sometimes have several. There is, as a result, an uneasy sense that things are being said in the poem which are not quite clear and often may be taken in more than one way. The poem is a peculiar combination of straightforward narrative and confusing repetitions which seem to mean not quite the same thing as they reappear throughout the poem. “It seemed the best thing to be up and go” and “The heart of standing is you cannot fly” are used in this manner, but they are also used in the aesthetic structure of the poem as alternating endings for the five-and three-line stanzas as a kind of choral repetition and a show of technical prowess.

Part of the problem of uncertainty about what is being said in the poem can be solved when it is recognized that the first three sets of double stanzas are in the past tense, a “telling” of the incident, perhaps to the person addressed rhetorically at the beginning of the seventh stanza. That narration, however, is mixed with comments on the incident made by the speaker, often unclear in meaning, and with snatches of conversation between the lovers which are sometimes hard to understand since they are conversing in a kind of shorthand not uncommon for people who know each other well. There is, as a result, a vivacity and immediacy, but also a sense of the reader being an outsider, not entirely sure of what is happening. For example, two sentences, although not consecutive, make sense if thought about for a moment. “Some solid ground for lying could she show?None of these deaths were her point at all.” If somewhat perversely confusing, they probably are part of the conversation about her reason for leaving. The seriousness of the earthquake and the possible deaths that might have occurred are not the reason she feels she must go; the reason is simply that her husband might have been calling for her. If he finds that she is not at home, what can she say to keep him from uncovering her infidelity? Perhaps she can lie and say that she was out looking about. The lover lamely suggests “saying Half an Hour to pay this call.” Clearly this would seem suspicious in the middle of the night, and he immediately concedes that “it seemed the best thing to be up and go.”

The second half of the poem is in the present tense as the lover defends himself against the good advice that he has no intention of taking. It is somewhat more straightforward but occasionally lapses into a kind of conversational shorthand, which is so common in John Donne’s poems of romantic enthusiasm confronted by common sense; like Donne’s lover, this man has a quick, sophisticated way with language and a tendency to say things ambiguously.

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