Study Guide

Lullaby Themes

  • Love

    At its most basic level, "Lullaby" is a love poem. The speaker begins by addressing his sleeping loved one, and goes on to ponder how love works in a world where everything eventually ends and where no one or nothing is perfect. Even though the speaker seems a bit negative at times (he knows full well that both he and his beloved are flawed), the poem ultimately affirms the value of love. In fact, for the speaker, imperfection is what makes his lover "entirely beautiful."

    Questions About Love

    1. What is the effect of the direct address to the speaker's sleeping loved one?
    2. What is Venus's role in the poem?
    3. We know that Auden was gay. Does homosexuality play any role in the poem? Could a heterosexual poet just as easily write this poem?
    4. What's the deal with the hermit's "carnal ecstasy"? Why does this weird and solitary figure appear in a love poem?
    5. Does the speaker have a negative view of love? Or just a realistic one?

    Chew on This

    "Lullaby" is about the conflicts that come from being gay in an intolerant society.

    "Lullaby" has nothing to do with homosexuality. No one is perfect, gay or straight.

  • Death

    The speaker of "Lullaby" spends a whole lot of time thinking about death. In the same sentence, he calls his beloved both "living" and "mortal." While he's alive now, he won't be alive forever. The speaker really hammers this idea in. Then, in the climax of the poem, the speaker announces that we should "find the mortal world enough" – that we should be satisfied with the here and now, and not look to God for answers. We should accept the mortality of all life and rejoice in the meaning that death provides. Sure, it's not exactly the cheeriest idea for a love poem. But there's something lovely about the speaker's realistic outlook on life and death.

    Questions About Death

    1. What is the effect of Auden's deathly diction? Why do words such as "grave" and "mortal" appear all over this poem?
    2. Why does the speaker focus so much on childhood in the first stanza? What is the connection between childhood and death in the poem?
    3. What does it mean when the speaker says "beauty, midnight, vision dies"? How can these fairly abstract things die? Is he speaking metaphorically?
    4. What does the phrase "mortal world" mean to you?

    Chew on This

    "Lullaby" is the most depressing love poem ever. Auden can't stop thinking about death, and this makes the poem a huge bummer to read.

    "Lullaby" is an incredibly realistic love poem. Auden's focus on death makes love seem all the more poignant and beautiful.

  • Religion

    The speaker of "Lullaby" isn't a religious man. We might even say he's anti-religious. He describes himself as "faithless" and asks us to "find the mortal world enough" – to not look to God to answer our questions about life. But he also invokes Venus, the Roman god of love and beauty in his poem, and the poem even sounds like a prayer at times. So is the speaker a big ol' atheist? An agnostic? A guy who's fascinated by ancient religions in an intellectual way? It's a bit ambiguous, but that's one of the things that makes the poem so intriguing.

    Questions About Religion

    1. If the speaker is "faithless," why does Venus, a Roman god, appear in the poem?
    2. Can the speaker still be spiritual if he is "faithless"? What are some examples of non-religious faith in the poem?
    3. Is the sleeping beloved also "faithless"? Or just the speaker?
    4. What makes up the "mortal world" that the speaker emphasizes in the last stanza of the poem?
    5. Do parts of the poem sound like a prayer to you? Which parts? What is the effect of these passages on the speaker's faithlessness?

    Chew on This

    The speaker is completely faithless. He doesn't believe in anything greater than the "mortal world".

    The speaker may not believe in God, but he certainly believes in love. He may not have religious faith, but he has a more earthly faith in other human beings.

  • Time

    The speaker of "Lullaby" knows that nothing lasts forever and that time passes. He includes several obvious symbols of time in his poem, and talks a whole lot about the fleetingness of life. But you know what? He seems pretty okay with the fact that nothing lasts forever. In fact, he thinks that the fleetingness of life makes it all the more valuable and beautiful. He's not lamenting time; he's celebrating it.

    Questions About Time

    1. What is the relationship between time and death in the poem?
    2. Why does Auden include two symbols of death (a clock and a bell)? Shouldn't one be enough?
    3. How do the tarot cards that predict the future fit into the poem's view of time?
    4. The speaker says that time "proves the child ephemeral." Is there something special about time and children in this poem? Or does time prove adults ephemeral too?

    Chew on This

    The speaker has a kind of carpe diem (seize the day) attitude in this poem. He says that since life is short, we have to make the best of our time here.

    The speaker is actually much more pessimistic. He says that we've just got to accept what we've got, because we're all going to die one day.