Study Guide


Lullaby Summary

"Lullaby" is a love poem spoken to someone who's sleeping. Romantic or Creepy? You be the judge. The speaker begins by telling his lover to lay his head on the speaker's arm. He then takes a minute to think about the fact that beauty can't last forever because death comes for us all in the end. Hmmm, depressing. He concludes that even his lover isn't perfect, but it doesn't matter: he's "entirely beautiful" anyway.

Then the speaker gets a little pensive; he starts to think about a bunch of random things, like Venus (the Roman goddess of love), a hermit who has an ecstatic experience, and madmen who bemoan the future. But despite all these (usually negative) wandering thoughts, he doesn't want to forget anything that has happened on this beautiful night with his lover.

The speaker says one more time that everything dies eventually (we get the point, Mr. Depressing), but then he begins to speak directly to his sleeping beloved. He prays (in the least religious way possible) that his beloved will experience life and "find the mortal world enough." Basically, he hopes his lover won't go looking too far for the answers to life's big questions. At the end of the poem, he says that the man is "watched by every human love." It's not God who looks after his sleeping beloved; it's the speaker himself.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-2

    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.

    Lines 3-6

    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.

    Lines 7-10

    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.
  • Stanza 2

    Lines 11-14

    Soul and body have no bounds:
    To lovers as they lie upon
    Her tolerant enchanted slope
    In their ordinary swoon,

    • The first line of the second stanza is more typical-love-poem stuff. The speaker says that souls and bodies have no boundaries as lovers lie together. The lovers seem to share bodies and souls with each other as they are tangled up in each other's arms.
    • Then, the speaker sets the scene a bit. These imaginary lovers are lying on "her" enchanted slope? Who is the "her"? Where is this slope? Is it a hillside? An off-kilter bed? And why is the slope tolerant? Does this have to do with the fact that Auden is a gay poet and in a relationship with a man? Is this what "tolerance" is about? Or is this a different kind of tolerance? These are all good questions to be asking right about now. Some of them will be answered in our analysis of the rest of the poem.
    • The speaker makes sure to let us know that the experience of the lovers is "ordinary." Yes, it might seem quite special to them, but love is natural and universal. What is more ordinary than being in love?

    Lines 15-17

    Grave the vision Venus sends
    Or supernatural sympathy,
    Universal love and hope;

    • Okay, so now we know who the "her" is: it's Venus!
    • Who is Venus, you ask? Well, she's the Roman goddess of love. Easy. When Venus arrives in the poem, you know there's some lovin' going on.
    • Auden's Venus isn't exactly as rosy as we might think, though. The speaker says that she brings a "grave" vision to the lovers. "Grave" here is an adjective, and it means serious and severe. But, duh, it also reminds us of the noun "grave." You know, where dead people are. Once again, our speaker is getting morbid on us.
    • And what about her "tolerant enchanted slope"? Are these lovers actually lying on Venus' body somehow? Probably not. We're just going to have to go with this. Auden's being poetic. (Hey, this is poetry after all.)
    • Despite its graveness, the vision that Venus brings to the lovers is pretty sweet. She sends them "supernatural sympathy," the understanding, and maybe even the well-wishes, of gods like herself.
    • She also sends them "universal love and hope." Not bad. We wouldn't mind some of that.

    Lines 18-20

    While an abstract insight wakes
    Among the glaciers and the rocks
    The hermit's carnal ecstasy.

    • You might be asking yourself now: what is going on? That would be a normal reaction. The poem started off in bed. Then we moved to some kind of hillside in the speaker's imagination. Now we're chilling with a hermit in the glaciers? What happened?
    • Well, this is a poem. The speaker can take up pretty much wherever he wants. Here, he decides to take us to a desolate and cold place.
    • In this cold place, there's a hermit, which is another name for a recluse or loner. So, before we had lovers all tangled up, and now we have a lonely dude in some ice. The speaker has drawn a comparison here. There's a huge difference between the scene on the enchanted slope and the lone hermit.
    • The hermit doesn't have it so bad, though. He is awakened by an "abstract insight," also known as, well, a thought or idea. And his experience of this thought brings about a "carnal ecstasy." We could also call this a very intense and erotic bodily experience (in fact, in the original version, the phrase was "sensual ecstasy").
    • Why bring the hermit into the poem at all? Well, we have a little theory. We can do a very biographical reading of this poem, and think about the limited options for gay men in the 1930s (when this poem was written). Most gay men at the time were closeted; many didn't even tell their friends and family that they were gay. Maybe they were a little bit like hermits, having to experience life alone.
    • It could be that the hermit in the poem somehow shares in Venus' vision of lovers sharing bodies and souls, and this is the abstract insight that awakens him. This is just one possible reading of the stanza. There certainly are others ways that you could read it we have to do a lot of reading between the lines with Auden.
  • Stanza 3

    Lines 21-23

    Certainty, fidelity
    On the stroke of midnight pass
    Like vibrations of a bell,

    • Our speaker is once again sharing his pessimistic point of view. Here he says that certainty and fidelity (or faithfulness) don't last (kind of like how he said in the first stanza that the beauty of childhood doesn't last).
    • He brings in two very obvious symbols of time here: a clock and a bell, both which strike and let us know that time is moving on. It might seem a little heavy-handed: does he need to reference both a clock and a bell? Wouldn't one symbol of time be enough? Apparently not. He really emphasizes his point: nothing lasts forever.

    Lines 24-28

    And fashionable madmen raise
    Their pedantic boring cry:
    Every farthing of the cost,
    All the dreaded cards foretell,
    Shall be paid

    • Once again the speaker brings in some strange characters. Who are these fashionable madmen? Why are they yelling pedantic (or obnoxious and nit-picky) things?
    • These madmen are much like the hermit of the previous stanza. They're part of the speaker's imagination.
    • And what are they yelling? Well, the colon in Line 25 acts almost as a quotation mark: what comes after it is a description of the madmen's words. Basically, they're yelling about money and tarot cards.
    • Still confused? Don't worry. These are tricky lines. A farthing was a British coin (it's no longer in use, so don't try to exchange your dollars for farthings next time you're in the UK). The "dreaded cards" that "foretell" are most likely tarot cards, which are supposed to predict the future.
    • So, what the men are really yelling about is the future. They're saying that we have to "pay up" before the end. We have to do what the tarot cards predict; we don't have any choices in life. After all, the bells are tolling – and they're tolling for us.

    Lines 28-30

    […] but from this night
    Not a whisper, not a thought,
    Not a kiss nor look be lost.

    • These lines are starkly different from the ones that come before. The earlier lines of the madness were loud: clicking tocks, tolling bells, madmen crying in the streets. These lines are quiet and intimate instead.
    • It doesn't matter what's going on outside to the speaker; all he wants is to remember the night that he's had with his beloved.
    • The repetitive and parallel phrases that begin with "not" all emphasize this point. He really, really, wants to remember everything. It doesn't matter how quickly time flies and attempts to erase the past. The speaker is going to hold onto every last detail.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 31-35

    Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
    Let the winds of dawn that blow
    Softly round your dreaming head
    Such a day of welcome show
    Eye and knocking heart may bless,
    Find the mortal world enough;

    • For a while, the speaker hasn't been speaking directly to his beloved; he's been addressing someone else. He might even be talking to himself. But this changes in the last stanza as he begins to address his lover directly.
    • Although the speaker seems pretty anti-religion throughout the poem (he describes himself as faithless, he spends a lot of time talking about the grave with no corresponding talk of heaven), here he definitely takes on a prayerful tone.
    • Even though he reiterates the fact that nothing is permanent – beauty, midnight, and even vision die – he still wants things to be beautiful for his beloved. He wants the winds of dawn to circle his beloved's head. He wants the day to welcome him. He even uses the word "bless."
    • But then comes the kicker. He says, in this prayer, that his beloved should "find the mortal world enough." This is his way of saying: don't go looking for a god, and don't try to solve your problems in the heavens. Look at the world, the beautiful, mortal, guilty world. That world is more than we will ever need. We don't need God. Pretty blunt.

    Lines 37-40

    Noons of dryness see you fed
    By the involuntary powers
    Nights of insult let you pass
    Watched by every human love.

    • The speaker continues the same train of thought here. He says that in times of dryness and hunger, his beloved will be fed. He also says that, in difficult times, insults will pass right over him.
    • This is starting to sound religious again, isn't it? But the speaker reveals his purpose in the last line: he will be the one protecting his beloved from hunger and insults, not God. There's no God in this equation. The speaker, and his "every human love," will watch over him.
    • It all comes back to the line "find the mortal world enough." It's as if the speaker is saying: we don't need God; we have each other.