Auld Lang Syne

Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Aubade, or breaking up is hard to do

I enjoy writing and reading aubades. For purposes of instruction (for those of you who may have read these and not known what the form is) an aubade is typically a morning poem or, more specifically, a poem of parting lovers. It is usually reflective of the speaker's feelings of loss or dejection. It also somewhat celebrates the lovers' connections to one another. It can be licit or illicit love that is discussed, celebrated, mourned.

I have an affinity for the poems of morning (odd since I don't really "do" morning) and these love poems are right up my alley.

Aubades are usually somewhat short ( a few stanzas or a couple of stanzas in some cases) as if to mirror the brief moment of departure. Let me recommend a few excellent ones:

Late Aubade by Richard Wilbur
Aubade by Philip Larkin
Shadows by Judi Van Gorder
Aubade: Some Peaches, After Storm by Carl Philips

But I want to turn attention to an excellent and somewhat unusual aubade by Richard Wilbur, For C. which was published in his 2000 collection, Mayflies (Harcourt)

For C. (From Mayflies, Harcourt 2000)

This poem, comprised of 5 6-line stanzas, each of which is a quatrain and a rhymed couplet, is at its soul an aubade. It begins in the third person singular (she/he) describing a departure of lovers. She leaves him standing at a window and departs in a taxi. At face value, nothing too sorrowful is happening here, until the reader gets to the final line of the stanza, the final phrase of the stanza: forever west. Now the reader is set up for what is to come as Wilbur unfolds the laundry of the poem, the hard luck and hard decisions. Of course Wilbur isn’t going to let us off hte hook for five lines before setting forth his message. A close reading of the poem shows in the first line that there is some conflict. His use of the word clash to describe the closing of the elevator and then the word sinking in the next line both prepare us and hint at the fact that there is trouble or discord or at the least unhappiness brewing.

In stanza two, the poet moves to a bit of a somewhat general commentary on what happens when people part, but not without getting personal. He refers to saying goodbye as being on such a grand scale and yet there is the pinpoint intimacy of lovers who had only the duration of a dance. This stanza is luscious in that it is evocative and plaintive, suggesting the lovers who for whatever reasons are doomed to this one dance, would like more. Again, Wilbur chooses his words carefully to get to a somber tone. Using the word darkling is an interesting choice. In using this, he presages a tenebrific life for the lovers who must leave the one dance with knowledge of a life forgone (doomed not to be). The reader feels what they feel, sympathizing a bit with their plight even if not agreeing with the illicit nature of their desires for one another.

The next stanza is purposefully enjambed to connect the lovers to the universe, which Wilbur does with great skill in the detail of the Perseids and their flash, and more specifically in their crumble. The poet moves quickly from the light of the Perseids to the darksome fate of the lovers whose being together unravels as they know it must. This burn and crash symbolism is not an overt judgement on the lovers, but an observation of their plight, in true aubade style.

Next there is a movement to a departure dock, and readers are weighted with specifics of farewelling, i.e. grief and baggage. In using this imagery, Wilbur embodies the sorrow, the heaviness of heart that is the aubade at its foundation. He ends the stanza with the crux of the poem: what they must leave behind is a difficult love, one that flashed bright as the Perseids. (The amorous rough and tumble of their wake) I am reminded of  Wilbur’s The Writer, in which the speaker of the poem (father) wishes his daughter a lucky passage, then later wishes it harder. Life and love are hard passages. Wilbur knows this and we do too.

Wilbur shifts in stanza four to the deeply personal we. There is a shift here too in he tone of the poem. The speaker of the poem is off on a comparison between the doomed lovers and his own relationship. The poet does this in a seemingly mocking tone, stating that he and his beloved cannot share in bittersweetness, regret, in large despair. He then takes it to the grounded state of his own love: of constant spirits. They are the entrusted ones for long love, pure and righteous love. He praises the mundane but steady commitment of enduring and decorous and accepted love, then ups the ante by purporting that this staid and tame romance is an art, and is sostenuto, lasting long beyond the regular measure.

The beauty of an aubade, certainly what is accomplished in this one, is that a poet can explore not only his/her own views of love, the personal, but also can foray into the opposites, the perhaps unlucky passages of others’ loves. What this aubade does that some (many) do not do is to combine the two looks. It also accomplishes a movement from the universal (unnamed lovers in various circumstances) to the personal. Most poems dare not go there. Wilbur not only dares, but invites. 


  1. I'll have to pay more attention to Aubades. I'll look up the ones you mentioned. We are reading Bishops's One Art - the villanelle that starts: "The art of losing isn't hard to master" so it would be good to look at other poems about loss. (Also, Roethke's "Elegy for Jane."

    I love The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating - have reread it at least twice. Did you see my review on Goodreads?


  2. Yes, I like tht book very much. In fact, I have a little audi/video clip on my blog page (scroll all the way to the bottom left and listen to the sound of the wild snail. The book made me feel small, but at the same time very much a part of the small and large universe we share.