The Poem

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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 763 words.)