Auld Lang Syne

Friday, July 20, 2012

"Late Aubade" by Richard Wilbur — a brief commentary

NOTE: an aubade is a poem written "at dawn" as a parting is expected between lovers or as a parting has just having taken place between lovers. It is somewhat a lament, somewhat a reflection, somewhat an honoring of the relationship. It can be a pleading to the lover not to leave.


NOTE: "A Late Aubade" — excerpts taken from the poem which appears in New and Collected Poems, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1988. The poem is found in its entirety on page 153 of this volume.


The aubade form is a special way of being for the poet as well as for the reader. It allows for the habitation of sorrow, regret, and loss — without artifice. There is a setting forth of what is along with what cannot be, with its deep regret. Instead of a maudlin "woe" at the loss (anticipated at the late night hour or at daybreak), it celebrates as it mourns.

... Think of all the time you are not
    Wasting, and would not care to waste (13-14)
     ... of time, by woman's reckoning
    You've saved, and so may spend on this,
    You who had rather lie in bed and kiss. (17-19)

Although the aubade need not follow a specific end-rhyme, Wilbur chooses to use bracketed rhymes (eg. a, b, b, a)
The resultant rhythms mirror the encompassment of the beloveds with their tryst, their time together, their love. Wilbur's poem is a great example of the form. He uses to advantage his skill as a formalist in the poem, taking care to make build the experience of the poem as a platform for the build-up to let-down of a lovers' parting.

It is helpful too, for a reader to examine the images Wilbur chooses. He does not make these decisions lightly, in fact each image is designed to highlight an aspect of the lovers' encounter and their eventual parting. For example, in line 25, he urges her to slip downstairs/ And bring us up some chilled white wine. Is he herein referring to her being in a slip? He certainly is not afraid of the image/comparison of her shape and her skin in the final line: Ruddy-skinned pears.

Another technique Wilbur uses very subtly is the short fourth line in each stanza. This emphasizes and calls attention to the brevity of the lovers' time together. The speaker of the poem is musingly aware of this short span experience and considers what else the lover might be doing rather than being in bed: reading in a library, planting flowers, walking the pooch, shopping, lunching through a screed [whining screech] of someone's loves, etc.

...rising in an elevator-cage
   Toward Ladies Apparel. (lines 3-4)

You could be planting a raucous bed, (5) which refers to the literalness of gardening in wild unpruned overblown disordered color, but also refers obliquely to the wildness of their lovemaking. However, the speaker is well aware of the passage of time, the fleeting moments of their lovemaking, their luxuriating in the haze of it. He says if you must go and then moves to one more plea for more time in the final stanza.

The speaker pleads his case in line 12: Isn't this better? followed by the support phrase: Think of all the time you are not wasting and the praiseful and would not choose to waste. Is this arrogance on the part of the speaker, or is it confidence?

By the sixth stanza, we see the hinge, the door swinging open for the good-bye. The speaker is plaintive but with a bit of self-directed and contained bravado. It's almost noon, you say? followed by the rehearsed glibness of cliché (time flies) an allusion to Robert Herrick's poem. The reference is ironic of course because the Herrick poem is written to "virgins" which clearly the dallying lover is not.

Finally, Wilbur's aubade reverberates throughout with the counterpointing of public and private time, the bustle of public activity with the slowed private activity of the lovers who make or want to make time recede. Isn't this better asks the speaker in line 12, after which he provides us with the answer.

One more thought for you to consider, dear reader:

Is "Late" a metaphor not only for the onrushing hour of parting, but also a commentary by the poet as his own onrushing mortality as a lover?

All in all the poem makes me think. It opens questions for me, including "Can a poem be artful in mirroring loss without being sappy or saccharine?" I think it can, think it ought. I am of the opinion that this form, the aubade, is a great way to tackle partings, whether licit or illicit, and do so without being too self-conscious.


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