The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

W. H. Auden’s “Lullaby,” his most famous love lyric, perhaps is better known by its famous first line, “Lay your sleeping head, my love.” In musical and rhetorical lines of mostly trochaic tetrameter verse, the narrator watches his sleeping lover through the night and, in four ten-line stanzas, reflects upon the value and necessity of both passionate love and beauty and their brevity.

The speaker gazes upon his lover beside him and sings this philosophical “lullaby” about love, beauty, and time’s ruthless pull. The speaker realizes that time eventually will erode his lover’s beauty, as it some day will suck children down into their graves. He prays to be allowed to hold his beloved in his admittedly “faithless arm” until dawn, because at this enchanted moment the beloved seems to him to be “entirely beautiful.” The speaker asks for a temporary reprieve from time for this one exquisite night to prolong the beauty of the moment and of his lover.

In the next stanza, the narrator reflects on the timeless and boundless feelings people experience when they are ardently in love and feel united in body and soul. Lovers seem to “swoon” into an enchanted union in which their bodies and spirits merge—it is as if Venus, the goddess of love, suffused them with feelings of sympathy, “universal love,” and “hope” so that the mortals feel unity and timelessness. Into this idyllic feeling of timeless passion, Auden...

(The entire section is 596 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Auden was fond of rhetorical patterns of repetition, especially complex forms of parallelism leading to paradoxes. He also juxtaposed surprising ideas to create unique metaphors. For example, grammatically parallel phrases begin two of the last four lines of the poem. Line 37 begins with “noons of dryness,” and line 39 with “nights of insult,” which are ways Auden metaphorically depicts difficult time periods in life. “Noons of dryness” metaphorically links the hottest time of day to the tactile image of “dryness” to imply a kind of sterile desert. “Noons” and “nights” are linked by parallelism, which implies that the speaker wants his beloved not only to wake up that day to joy and beauty, but also to be protected by his human love every day for his whole life. It is paradoxical that Auden uses specific times, noon and night, metaphorically to imply a wish for timeless love and joy.

The meditations on love, beauty, and passion in “Lullaby” take place over a single night which the speaker wishes to preserve. Auden makes this one night partially appear “timeless” by using present-tense verb forms in all stanzas of the poem: He uses “lay” and “let” in stanza 1; tries “have,” “lie,” and “wakes” in stanza 2; employs “pass,” “raise,” and foretell in stanza 3; and ends with “let,” “bless,” and “find” in the final stanza. He makes this magical night consistently “present” so that subliminally one may participate in the speaker’s meditation.

Auden favors speakers who seemingly are present, but also to some degree are detached from the action, contemplating it. His speaker in “Lullaby” has a complex vision of human love and sees the contradictory impulses and feelings implied. By asking a sleeping beloved, who cannot answer, to rest on his “faithless arm,” the speaker implies that he wants love (but not necessarily undying fidelity) and that all human love is transient. Auden’s speaker seems to be conscious of his own contrary impulses; he wants passion and wants it never to end, but knows it must end. He seems to observe himself thinking; the poem’s readers look over his shoulder.