Aubade in Rhyming Iambic Pentameter
An aubade is typically a poem that celebrates the arrival of dawn. An aubade can also be a kind of morning love poem, often centering around two lovers parting at dawn (check out "What's Up With the Title?" if you're dying to know more). Dawn arrives in Larkin's "Aubade," but Shmoop wouldn't call it a celebration. And the speaker of Larkin's poem wakes up and watches day break alone. Actually, Larkin kind of uses the aubade form in an ironic way to emphasize the poem's theme of death's ultimate triumph over life (like night's triumph over day). Way to take all the fun out of it, Phil.
Still, Larkin clearly had a good time putting this poem together. As a poet, he was all about form and meter, and "Aubade" is a great example of how he used form to amplify and highlight aspects of content and theme. Let's take a look at those iambs first, shall we?
An iamb is a pattern: an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Say "allow" out loud and you'll hear a real, live iamb in action: daDUM. Put five of those little suckers together and you have iambic pentameter ("penta-" means five). "Aubade's" first few lines set up this pattern:
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night. (1)
Read the line aloud and you'll hear the daDUM daDUM pattern.
So, why did Larkin use iambic pentameter in "Aubade?" Good question. Think about the major themes in this one. Death and the futility and monotony of life certainly stand out. The repeated patterns reflect that monotony. There are deviations that hint at glimmers of the unexpected, but the surprises are usually unpleasant—not a surprise party with balloons and cupcakes (man, we loves us some cupcakes). The pattern also reinforces the feeling of knowing beyond a doubt what is coming next (in this case: looming death).
Since most of "Aubade's" lines follow the iambic pentameter pattern, when a line breaks the pattern it really stands out. Larkin takes advantage of the jarring sense we get when a pattern is broken. Take a look at line 7 for a good example:
And where and when I shall myself die.
Notice anything different here? Yup, the pattern is broken. The line is bouncing along nicely, one iamb after another, until the end. There, where there should be an unstressed syllable, comes a stressed one. And the word that's stressed, "die," is kind of the point of the whole poem. The line ends with a thud. The sound of those stressed syllables right next to each other mirror the speaker's feeling when he realizes death is looming. So, the metrical deviation mirrors and emphasizes the line's content. That's kind of cool, right? Okay, cool might be too strong, but hey, we like it.
Speaking of metrical variation (and trying oh-so-hard to stay awake with that kind of talk), Phil changes things up near the end of each stanza. The second-to-last line of each stanza (the penultimate line for those of you looking to boost your SAT vocab scores) breaks away from the iambic pentameter pattern he sets up. These lines are shorter than the other lines in each stanza and they sound different. These differences guarantee that they get lots of attention. Take a look at line 9 for a taste of what we're talking about:
of dying and being dead
Looks different. Sounds different. This line starts and ends with iambs, but the middle of the line is different. There is an anapestic foot here (two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one), right smack dab between the iambs. And check out the stressed word that's hanging off the end of the line. Why, it's our old pal death. Larkin reallly wants us to think about death.
Line 19 is another shorty (the shortest in the poem) and another good example of how Larkin breaks away from the iambic pentameter pattern to make a point:
Not to be Anywhere,
Here we have two dactylic (one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables) feet. If you read the line aloud, you can hear the DUMdada DUMdada rhythm. Try it. You'll like it. By establishing this smooth rhythm and then cutting it off abruptly, the sound of the line mirrors, in a sense, the sudden end of a life. The fact that the line is so short and ends so abruptly leaves the reader hanging—kind of dangling in the white space between the longer lines before and after. The reader is left there for a moment between lines, in the white space, not really anywhere. Get it? The metrical change mirrors the line's content and feeling.
We're not done yet, though. Larkin has another formal trick up his puffy white poet sleeves—rhyme. The poem follows a strict rhyme scheme: ABABCCDEED. Rhyme can be used to create emphasis and mirror content in much the same way breaking from an established metrical pattern can. You don't have to dig very deep in the poem to find a good example. Just check out the end rhyme in lines 1 and 3: "night" and "light."
Besides reminding Shmoop of our Death Star nightlight (we know you're jealous, try to move past it), there are a couple other interesting aspects to this rhyme. In terms of meaning, night and light are very nearly opposites (night is dark). And visually, the two words look very similar. In fact, a single letter prevents one word from actually becoming the other. When we consider what Larkin is saying in the poem about death being the ultimate victor over light and life, this rhyme definitely emphasizes one of the poem's main themes. Just because the night ends, that doesn't mean death has been defeated or pushed away. In fact, he tells us that the dawn of each new day, the coming of the light, really signals "unresting death [eternal night], a whole day nearer." Light will eventually become night.
Larkin uses the same trick in stanza 4 with "brave" and "grave." This time, the rhyme emphasizes the idea that being brave doesn't get you any further from death: "Being brave / Lets no one off the grave" (38-39). "Brave" and "grave" are close in sound and visually as similar as "light" and "night." If you are brave, you are just as close to death as a coward. The cowardly and the brave all end up in the same place, anyway.
See? We told you that Larkin put a lot into the structure of this poem. In all things, he made choices to underscore the central preoccupation of the speaker, and the inevitable sense of doom brought about by looming death—not exactly a laugh fest, we admit, but a stunning accomplishment nonetheless.