As we discussed in the "Form and Meter" section on "Lullaby," this poem rhymes and has a set meter, but it consistently deviates from the pattern. The poem may even seem a little bit off to you: we expect certain rhymes and rhythms, and then – psych! – we're denied them. It's almost like Auden is playing a song for us to listen to, but then keeps skipping to another song before the first one is over. It can be a little maddening to us; we want our rhymes to be regular! We want our rhythm to be stable! We want to hear the whole song! Still, part of the joy of "Lullaby" is this push and pull between our expectations and the poem itself.
We all know what a lullaby is: it's a sweet and soothing song that is usually sung to a child to help her go to sleep. It's often rhythmic and soft, and its purpose is to make someone sleepy.
So is "Lullaby" a lullaby? Yes and no. It has a metrical basis and it rhymes, so it has that going for it. It even might sound soothing when you read it aloud. But for a poem that sounds soothing, its content is absolutely the opposite. This poem is a little obsessed with death – okay, a lot obsessed with it. We don't know about you, but we'd probably like to skip all the talk of graves right before sleepy-time. Even though the poem ends on a beautiful and warm note, it's not exactly your typical lullaby.
Also, it's worth mentioning that in its first publication, the poem is referred to as "XVIII" and identified in the table of contents by its first line ("Lay your sleeping head my love.") We prefer "Lullaby," definitely.
At the beginning of the poem, it feels like the speaker is in bed with his beloved, cradling him as he sleeps. But after the first stanza, the speaker's imagination begins to wander, and he envisions hillsides and glaciers, a Roman goddess, a hermit, and a population of madmen. Does the speaker actually travel around the world and meet all of these people? We're going to go ahead and say no. His imagination wanders all over the place while he's warmly tucked into bed with his beloved. He's got a pretty good imagination, if we do say so ourselves.
The speaker is a loving yet realistic man. He doesn't tell his beloved that he's the most amazing person to ever live. He knows that no one is perfect, but finds his lover beautiful in spite of his mortality and flaws. He may seem like kind of a downer at times, but we could also see him as incredibly truthful. He acknowledges that life is fleeting, and wants to make the most of it. His lack of religious belief might even be what inspires him to "find the mortal world enough." For the speaker, nothing lasts forever, and that's what makes life beautiful.
Judging from its name, "Lullaby" should be an easy poem. Lullabies are usually sung to kids, after all. But it's actually a lot more difficult. Auden's word order (also known as his syntax) and his line breaks (also known as enjambments) can make the poem difficult to follow. Throw in Venus, some screaming madmen, and a weirdo hermit, and you've got yourself a difficult poem. That said, it is your basic love poem and the message comes across loud and clear: nobody's perfect and that's okay.
Auden refused to make a hero out of anyone. He wrote a bunch of amazing elegies (including ones for Sigmund Freud and the poet W.B. Yeats) and even in those poems commemorating their lives and work, he refused to turn them into heroes.
So did Auden just think that everyone was a crackpot? Not really. As we see in "Lullaby," he loves the humanness of his lover. He loves his mortality, his guilt, his mistakes, his flaws. Auden loved to celebrate the anti-hero, the regular ol' guy or gal who is majorly imperfect. For Auden, imperfections are what make us "entirely beautiful." So don't go looking for any Supermans in Auden's poetry. You won't find them here.
Let's start with the rhyme scheme of "Lullaby." Shouldn't be too hard to figure out, right? Well, think again. This poem can be a bit tricky. We can start by assigning a letter to each rhyme. Here are the first few lines:
Lay your sleeping head, my love, A
Human on my faithless arm; B
Time and fevers burn away C
It's pretty clear that there are no rhymes among "love," "arm," and "away." But as the stanza continues, things start to sort-of rhyme.
Lay your sleeping head, my love, A
Human on my faithless arm; B
Time and fevers burn away C
Individual beauty from B-ish
Thoughtful children, and the grave C-ish
Proves the child ephemeral: D
But in my arms till break of day C
Let the living creature lie, E
Mortal, guilty, but to me F
The entirely beautiful. D-ish
As you can see, not all of the rhymes are full rhymes, like, say "arm" and "harm" would be. Those words rhyme perfectly. In "Lullaby," there are a whole lot of imperfect rhymes, also known as slant rhymes. "Arm" and "from" sound pretty similar, but it's not a perfect match. The same goes for "ephemeral" and "beautiful." These rhymes are just a little bit off.
So you might be asking yourself: why didn't Auden just come up with some perfect rhymes? And why does the rhyme scheme change from stanza to stanza? (Keep assigning letters for rhymes and you'll see how much Auden continues to mix things up). Well, this is a poem all about human imperfection; about how even your favorite person in the whole wide world isn't perfect. It seems like Auden wants to match his form with his content: his beloved is imperfect, and so are his rhymes. Neat, huh?
Okay, now onto meter. "Lullaby" is written in trochaic tetrameter. Don't let those words scare you. Here's what that means:
The meter of any poem is its rhythm. Some poems have very strict meters, and some, like free verse poems, have no set meters at all. Auden likes to play around with his poem's rhythms, and this is especially true for "Lullaby."
We always describe the meter of a poem using two words. The first word (here it's "trochaic") tells you what kind of "foot," or small unit of rhythm, is the main one in the poem. The second word (here it's "tetrameter") tells you how many of those feet are put together to make one line. A "trochee" is a two-beat foot that goes da-dum: one stressed syllable followed by one unstressed syllable. (Think of the children's rhyme "Pe-ter Pe-ter Pump-kin Eat-er" as another example; it has the same rhythm as "Lullaby"!) And because this is "tetrameter," there are four trochees.
So, let's see what happens when we analyze the first two lines for stress:
Lay your sleep-ing head, my love,
Hu-man on my faith-less arm;
The stressed syllables alternate perfectly, and cause us to pause at the end of each line for just a second. A lot of children's poems use trochaic verse; there's something almost soothing about its regularity. (Perhaps that's why Auden employed it for his "Lullaby," don't you think?)
As the poem continues, though, the natural flow of the words, also known as the prosody, doesn't line up so well with the trochaic tetrameter. Since you're probably not going to get a PhD in poetry (though we do encourage it!), we'll stop our analysis here. But let us just say that this poem has a whole lot of metrical variations and imperfections, just like the rhymes in the poem.
This doesn't mean that Auden was a bad poet. It means that he subtly used the form of the poem to influence its meaning – sneaky devil. He writes about imperfection in imperfect forms. We think that this makes him a little bit of a genius.
The speaker is a bit obsessed with the ideas of death and the passing of time. This sweet little love poem is actually filled with morbid images and thoughts. Does love make the speaker think of death? Does death make him think of love? Probably; the two seem really intertwined in this poem. It's like he can't look at his beloved without being reminded that they're both going to die someday.
Nothing lasts forever in this poem, and no one is perfect. In fact, Auden is known for being anti-heroic in all of his poems. He doesn't aggrandize people (build them up) and make them all-powerful or magnificent. Instead, he always acknowledges people's imperfections and flaws. For Auden, though, these flaws are the best part of us. Our flaws are what make us human.
"Lullaby" is a love poem, so it's not so surprising that Venus would show up in it. Venus is the Roman goddess of love; her Greek counterpart is Aphrodite (you might have heard of her, too). Poets and artists have been a little obsessed with her for centuries; she symbolizes love, sex, desire, beauty, and all that other good stuff. In "Lullaby," she's a (mostly) benevolent figure who bestows love and hope upon the lovers.
This poem's got some sex appeal: we've got lovers in bed, boundless souls and bodies, a carnally excited hermit, and the goddess of love. However, there's no full-frontal nudity, and no detailed descriptions of any body parts or anything like that. So, we're going to go with a PG-13 for this one: carnal hermits may be inappropriate for children under thirteen.