Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
- The poem begins with a command – the speaker tells his "love" to put his head on the speaker's arm. It's not a stern or scary command; it's actually pretty sweet.
- This is a very intimate beginning to a poem. It almost sounds like the speaker and his beloved are in bed. The beloved is sleeping, after all.
- As we mentioned in the "In a Nutshell" section, Auden was gay, and his love poems are generally pretty autobiographical. Because of this, we're going to go ahead and make the assumption that the beloved in the poem is a man.
- "Lullaby" is spoken to a specific person, who the speaker calls "my love." This means the poem is addressed to a specific person. That makes the beloved the addressee of the poem. Just a little terminology for you.
- In the second line, the speaker gets a little more specific. He tells us that the addressee's head is "human" and that his own arm is "faithless."
- The "human" thing might seem to be a bit repetitive. What did we think, that the speaker was addressing a frog? Still, the word "human" doesn't just make us think of the distinctions between humans and animals. It makes us think of all the things that come along with being human: the body, the brain, the heart.
- This explicit mention of humanity also makes us think of the phrase "we're only human." People use this phrase as a way of saying, "hey, no one's perfect – everyone makes mistakes." This is what Auden seems to be getting at in this line.
- The word "faithless" makes us think we may have an atheist on our hands.
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
- These lines might seem a little intimidating at first, mostly because of the line breaks (also known as enjambments). The key is to read the phrases together as if this weren't poetry. Read the phrases up to the punctuation marks, and ignore the line breaks for the time being. Makes a little more sense this way, right?
- These enjambments create a flow to the poem that prevents you from reading each line on its own. They create a sense of continuity throughout the poem; the whole thing is connected.
- So, the first three lines say that beauty is burned away from children through time and fevers. Now, the non-poetic version of this sentence: Time (and the things that happen as time passes, such as fevers and illnesses) takes away beauty from children. The even less poetic version of this? People age. They get sick. The beauty of childhood ends.
- Now for the next phrase. The child is proved "ephemeral" by the grave. "Ephemeral" is a fancy word that means temporary, fleeting, and short-lived. Basically, the speaker is saying that no one lives forever; even children end up in the grave (i.e., dead) eventually. Every dead adult was once a beautiful child. A little morbid, if we say so ourselves (and we do).
- Does this still seem like a love poem to you? Why are you talking about death so much, Auden? We'll find out as the poem continues.
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
- Ah, there's a "but." Even though the speaker has been telling us that everyone dies, here he gets a bit more optimistic.
- He says what sounds almost like a prayer (even though he describes himself as "faithless") in the second line of the stanza. He's no longer talking to the sleeping beloved, the original addressee of the poem. Now he asks someone or something to let his beloved ("the living creature") lie in his arms until the morning. Sweet, isn't it?
- To whom is he talking? God? Probably not. Himself? We're not really sure.
- It's interesting that he refers to his beloved as a "creature." This could be a term of endearment. Or, it could be a reminder that we are all "creatures," we're all animals. We're not special because we're human.
- The adjectives that the speaker uses to describe this creature ("mortal" and "guilty") may seem a bit strange. Is this the vocabulary we usually find in a love poem? Not really. After all, everyone is mortal; that's not a very special designation. And "guilty"? What is the beloved guilty of? Murder? Fraud? Typical human behavior? We don't know for sure.
- The important thing is that the speaker finds the beloved "entirely beautiful," not in spite of his mortality and guilt, but because of it. He doesn't just love the amazing things about the sleeping creature. He also loves his very human flaws.