Study Guide

Lullaby Form and Meter

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Form and Meter

Irregular Rhyme Scheme with Trochaic Tetrameter

Rhyme Time... Kind Of

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?

Metered Imperfection

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.

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