In the words of John Fuller, this poem – one of W H Auden’s most highly regarded love lyrics – ‘achieves the beauty of its effect by the way in which the moment of happiness is weighed gravely and consciously against an awareness of all that can threaten it’.
That it is addressed to a sleeping lover creates an interesting degree of imbalance from the outset, and some of the poem’s workings are based on the classical understandings of two distinct types of love; Eros, or physical love, and Agape, a non-sexual, fraternal or filial love. The line ‘Soul and body have no bounds’ suggest the addressee is present in both senses ‘till break of day’; for Fuller,
The second stanza proposes that on the one hand Eros can lead to Agape, and on the other that ‘abstract insight’ can induce Eros: the lover and the desert saint are closer than they appear.
The ‘stroke of midnight’ with which ‘certainty’ and ‘fidelity’ pass, with its suggestion of a bell or lightly ticking clock, is an appropriately rhythmic but gentle means of dividing the poem in two. From there, each of the four ten-line stanzas is a single, softly rhymed, gently punctuated sentence.
That the poem ends with a kind of benediction extends the isolated moment of love endlessly into the future; this – and the way the poem has recorded it – perhaps realises the second stanza’s declaration. Despite the image of fate in the ‘dreaded cards’ and of political demagoguery in the ‘fashionable madmen’, ‘from this night / Not a whisper, not a thought, / Not a kiss nor look be lost.’ In this recognition of the meaning of the ephemeral moment there is something performative, even dramatic, and indeed one of the poem’s literary predecessors is Oberon’s blessing in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1594–95): ‘Through the house give glimmering light … Now, until the break of day’ (5.1.391–401).
Similarly, the line ‘Mortal, guilty, but to me / The entirely beautiful’ seems to lead on from Yeats’s more Agape-oriented poem ‘A Prayer for My Daughter’: ‘Hearts are not had as a gift, but hearts are earned / By those that are not entirely beautiful’.
Written in 1937, and published in New Writing that Spring, some critics read it as being addressed to Michael Yates, one of Auden’s pupils. It has subsequently been set to music by Hans Werner Henze.
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