An introduction to W H Auden's 'Lullaby'

W H Auden’s 'Lullaby' is an unconventional love poem, celebrating the impermanence and physicality of erotic – and implicitly homosexual – love. Roz Kaveney places the poem in the context of Auden’s life and times.

What makes Auden's 1937 poem 'Lullaby' so remarkable and intriguing? I would suggest it’s that it refuses as it progresses through its four quiet stanzas ever to go where conventional expectation would dictate. It is perverse as well as paradoxical; it is not explicitly a gay poem in the contemporary usage of the term, but it is undoubtedly a queer one.[1] Auden was not merely a homosexual in a time when in his native country this was both illegal and by most people considered disgraceful; he was openly gay and at times evangelically so.

Another Time by W H Auden

Page 43 containing th poem ‘Lay Your Sleeping Head’, also known as ‘Lullaby’, from Another Time by W H Auden

‘Lay Your Sleeping Head’, also known as ‘Lullaby’, was published in Auden’s collection Another Time (1940).

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Rebelling against conformity

For his occasional lover and closest friend Christopher Isherwood, homosexuality was a way of opposing bourgeois morals and conformity, as well as a preference; for Auden it was a more complex site of internal conflict. His Freudianism told him it was an abnormality;[2] the Christianity with which he constantly flirted, and to which he eventually returned, told him it was a sin – and yet it was a source of constant pleasure. For both him and Isherwood, it was a way of being close to the working-class young men with whom he felt in political sympathy, especially when they were German ('to Christopher, Berlin meant boys'[3]) – having sex with them was a way of rejecting fascism, with its culture of violently moralistic institutional homophobia. Auden was prepared to fight this in the actual world as well as inside his head – he went to Spain during the Civil War, and entered into a token passport marriage with Erika Mann, the lesbian daughter of the dissident writer Thomas Mann. Like many young men of his class in the 1930s, Auden saw a similarity between fascism and the private schools he had hated and in which he was at times compelled to teach in order to earn a living.

Auden and Isherwood leaving for China in 1938

Photograph of Auden and Isherwood standing on the platform of Victoria Station, London

Photograph of W H Auden (right) with his friend, and occasional lover, the novelist Christopher Isherwood (left) on the platform of Victoria Station, London, in 1938.

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W H Auden and Erika Mann pictured in the year of their marriage by Alec Bangham

Photograph of W H Auden and Erika Mann, standing against a wall

Auden married Erika Mann, the daughter of Thomas Mann in 1935. Both Erika and Auden were gay; theirs was a marriage of convenience to enable her to obtain a British passport.

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This poem also comes from the period when he was in love with, and trying (almost certainly unsuccessfully) to seduce, the slightly younger composer Benjamin Britten; it is a lyric that has been set by several composers, notably Lennox Berkeley and Hans Werner Henze – Britten set a lot of poems by Auden, and they collaborated on the opera Paul Bunyan, but never this one. None the less, the friendship with Britten – and with the cabaret singer Hedli Anderson, wife of his fellow poet Louis MacNiece – encouraged Auden to write not merely lyric poetry but poems that were, like this one, potentially lyrics, however private their content.

Breaking the conventions of the lullaby

The refusal of the conventional starts with the title. Most lullabies are, as a genre assumption, parent – usually mother – to young child. Lullabies are intended to put the child to sleep, rather than celebrations of an already sleeping lover; moreover, the lover's sleep is implicitly post-coital. This is the lullaby of the poet to a younger lover – not specifically stated to be a casual male pickup; the lover is sleeping and the poet is awake and adopting – in non-biological ways – a nurturing role. Auden once stated about his pickups: 'With boys I understand what a parent feels.'[4]

Structurally, the poem consists of four stanzas which flow into each other yet have distinct emphases. There are some rhymes but far more assonances so that there is an implied internal patterning rather than a clear structure – the poem remains conversational. Most love poems in English rely heavily on the reverse, the iambic foot of a soft syllable followed by a stressed one. Here the use of trochees – a stressed syllable followed by a softer one – gives the poem, appropriately, a rocking sensation.

A temporary love

Most lullabies – indeed most love poems – adopt an idealised stance in which the beloved stands for more than just themselves; one of the standard tropes of the love poem is that romantic love makes us better than we are. Here, on the contrary, the poet describes himself from the beginning as faithless. In a standard trope, the love for an individual – in a tradition that goes back to Plato and Socrates's speech in the Symposium – is one of the ways in which we learn to love humanity as a whole. This remains true here – but the implication is that this is because the love is temporary and casual, generic. The young lover is at one and the same time an individual and an abstract – 'burn away / individual beauty' (ll. 4-5); there is no promise of a lasting relationship – the ageing process which will make him less desirable to the poet is figured as a part of general mortality 'the grave / proves the child ephemeral' (ll. 4-8).

One area in which the poem does not refuse or subvert a conventional trope is its sense of time passing and things coming to an end. Sexual intimacy will come to an end – 'certainty, fidelity / at the stroke of midnight pass' (ll. 21-22) – and yet something remains. What is important is the moment, both because of its intensity and because it will live in memory:

from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.   (ll. 28-30)

What Auden does not say explicitly is that it will be preserved in this poem – 'my love shall in my verse ever live young', as Shakespeare has it in his Sonnet 19. There is no hint here of the power of poetry itself to preserve the poet and his life – no 'I have built a monument more lasting than bronze' (Horace Odes III. 30). One of the many things Auden rejected was the idea of the poet as special, like Shelley's unacknowledged legislator; the capacity of a single night of love to live in memory is a universal democratic one.

‘Among the glaciers and the rocks / The hermit’s carnal ecstasy’

Similarly universal and democratic – he claims – is the capacity of everyone to feel compassion – 'universal love and hope' (l. 17)after sexual activity. The vision Venus sends is 'grave' (l. 15)both because sex is often seen as 'the little death' and because the classical physician Galen said 'post coitum omne animal triste est' ('after sex all animals are sad'). It is also relevant that Galen went on to exclude women from this. Auden counterposes 'the hill of Venus' – by implication both the genital area and the realm of erotic possibility in which Wagner's Tannhäuser lost his soul – with the glaciers and rocks among which hermits seek their individual salvation. Auden subversively suggests, moreover, that sexual fulfilment is the real spirituality whereas the ecstasy of the mystic is carnal and selfish.

Rejecting mystics and ‘fashionable madmen’

The lullaby moves into an aubade (a poem or piece of music composed for the dawn or early morning) – the morning will come and lovers will part – but the quasi-parental role remains in a final stanza which is a blessing to the young lover. It hopes for the lover to be content with the mortal world rather than that of the mystics or the 'fashionable madmen' (l. 24) – a reference to the political realm of totalitarian ideology. It hopes that simple animal kindness – 'the involuntary powers' rather than some divinity – will provide the lover with sustenance, and that ordinary human decency will save him from 'nights of insult' (l. 39). If, as seems likely, the object of affection in the poem is a young German street hustler in a culture of homophobic fascism and in the aftermath of the Great Depression, these quite modest blessings are appropriate.

Letters from W H Auden to William L McElwee and Patience McElwee, 1927–29

Typewritten letter from W H Auden to William L McElwee, dated 31 December 1928

Auden spent several months in Berlin, a city known at the time for its relative tolerant attitude towards homosexuality. This is one of the letters he sent to his friend William McElwee from Germany.

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Auden knows that he is writing from a position of intense class privilege about a lover who has far less. He knows that though he too is at risk from legal consequences, they are liable to be less severe. He has his own doubts as to whether he can be homosexual and at the same time either a moral man or a healthy one. Yet out of those very personal doubts, a very particular set of circumstances, and some gently different prosodic choices, he builds something at once fragile and gorgeous. Previous homosexual love poetry in English – Douglas's 'Two Loves' for example – tends to be very conventional and imitative of its straight equivalent, to be a defensive attempt at respectability; 'Lullaby' on the contrary does not – it celebrates casual impermanence as a good rather than a sad compromise.


[1] Until the rise of Gay Liberation in the late 1960s, queer was a derogatory term that was replaced by gay. In due course LGBT activists for whom the word ‘gay’ had acquired assimilationist overtones, have reclaimed ‘queer’ as a piece of ‘in your face’ proud identity. Auden would have been amused by this.

[2] Freud was ambivalent about the homosexuality of his patients, but many of his popularisers simplified his ideas to make them more acceptable.

[3] Jamie M Carr, Queer Times: Christopher Isherwood’s Modernity (New York: Routledge, 2006) p. 136.

[4] Norman Page, Auden and Isherwood: The Berlin Years (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998), p. 29.

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  • Roz Kaveney
  • Roz Kaveney is a freelance writer and publisher's advisor. Her poetry collections include Dialectic of the Flesh; her books on popular culture include Reading the Vampire Slayer. Her most recent novels are Resurrections and Tiny Pieces of Skull.

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