Aubades - the Poetic Term for a Dawn Song

On the way to Freshwater from Newport I pass a house called ‘Aubade’, it has always struck me as quite an odd name for a house

On the bus each day on the way to Freshwater from Newport I pass a house called ‘Aubade’, it has always struck me as quite an odd name for a house although not un-flattering, for it is the poetic term for a dawn song, and expresses the regret of lovers parting at day break. It is the opposite of the serenade, the moon song, which, incidentally, is the name of a boat I have also seen on my commute into work. The most famous Aubades of English Literature, are the dawn song of Chaucer’s ‘Troilus and Criseyde’, which incidentally came up in an exam of mine at undergraduate level, and the other is the dawn song from ‘Romeo and Juliet’, which incidentally also came up in an exam of mine at GCSE. 

Tennyson would have been intimately familiar with both of these Aubades, and no doubt they each influenced his own attempts at writing a dawn song.

‘Myn hertes lyf, my trist and my plesaunce,
That I was born, allas! what me is wo,
That day of us mot make disseveraunce!
For tyme it is to ryse and hennes go,
Or eeles I am lost for evermo!
O night, allas! why niltow over us hove,
As longe as whanne Almena lay by Jove?’ – ‘Troilus and Criseyde’ 

Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale. 

It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night's candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.’ – ‘Romeo and Juliet’ 

‘Romeo and Juliet’, and ‘Troilus and Crisyede’ as two larger works, share much of their imagery, as well as of their plots, and over these aubades hangs the shadow of the curses of these lovers, which, in both cases the audience/reader would have been aware of. Tennyson, recognising that there is an element of the Aubade that signifies the approaching death of the lovers, references it as a form most frequently in his mourning poetry, seeing within the aubade a way of expressing a tragic loss. 

‘Gone onto darkness, that full light
    Of friendship! past, in sleep, away
By night, into the deeper night!
    The deeper night? A clearer day
Than our poor twilight dawn on earth—
    If night, what barren toil to be!
What life, so maim’d by night, were worth
    Our living out? Not mine to me
Remembering all the golden hours
    Now silent, and so many dead,
And him the last; and laying flowers,
    This wreath, above his honour’d head,
And praying that, when I from hence
    Shall fade with him into the unknown,
My close of earth’s experience
    May prove as peaceful as his own.’ – Tiresias 

The ending of ‘Tiresias’ echoes a passage of Tennyson’s far earlier poem, ‘In Memoriam’ which speaks painfully of the love and loss of one of his closest friends, Arthur Hallam. The use of a convention associated with lovers is not rare for this poem, which frequently draws on ways of writing that seem to the reader to be more romantic.

‘Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, not as one that weeps
I come once more; the city sleeps;
I smell the meadow in the street; 

I hear a chirp of birds; I see
Betwixt the black fronts long-withdrawn
A light-blue lfame of early dawn,
And think of early days and thee, 

And bless thee, for thy lips are bland,
And bright the friendship of thine eye;
And in my thoughts with scarce a sigh
I take the pressure of thine hand.’ – ‘In Memoriam’ 

Tennyson is using the Aubade here to understand the process of separation of death, rather than simply a separation at dawn, however, it is not rare for this poetic form to become an expression of both these phenomena. However, in ‘Maud’ the Aubade is used in a different way, to describe a lover waking from a dream of the beloved, the fact that his lover is not even present when the Aubade (usually a joint song) is spoken, reinforces the lowliness of the speaker in ‘Maud’, as well as the intensity of his fantasy about her.

‘Do I hear her sing as of old,
My bird with the shining head,
My own dove with the tender eye?
But there rings on a sudden passionate cry,
There is some one dying or dead,
And a sullen thunder is roll’d;
For a tumult shakes the city,
And I wake, my dream is fled;
In the shuddering dawn, behold,
Without knowledge, without pity,
By the curtains of my bed
That abiding phantom cold. ‘ – ‘Maud: A Monodrama’ 

It is in ‘Tithonus’, however, that Tennyson’s ‘Aubades’ reach their climax. It is a poem about Aurora, the goddess of the dawn, and her human lover Tithonus, to whom she granted immortality, but not the ability to stop ageing. As a result, he grows older and older, yet cannot die. He therefore both loves and hates the dawn, hoping for the death that the Aubade normally hails, yet doomed to re-live repeatedly this cycle of parting.

‘Yet hold me not for ever in thine East:
How can my nature longer mix with thine?
Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold
Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet
Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam
Floats up from those dim fields about the homes
Of happy men that have the power to die,
And grassy barrows of the happier dead.
Release me, and restore me to the ground;
Thou seëst all things, thou wilt see my grave:
Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn;
I earth in earth forget these empty courts,
And thee returning on thy silver wheels.’ – ‘Tithonus’  

In modern aubades, often the more romantic element of the poem, as it was originally used, has been lost. Instead, what remains are the threat of mortality, and the cycle of time, which these poems imply. As a result, the aubades we read now are often quite depressing, and as usual, Philip Larkin does an excellent job of extracting the misery out of the form. 

‘I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.  
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.  
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.  
Till then I see what’s really always there:  
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,  
Making all thought impossible but how  
And where and when I shall myself die.  
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.’ – ‘Aubade’, Philip Larkin

However, this is not to say that the aubade is by nature a poetic reflection on death, and, in order to make the occupiers of ‘Aubade’ the house, feel a little better, I think it is best to end on a more positive rendition of this kind of poem. John Donne’s 1633 poem ‘The Sun Rising’ begins with a lament about the dawn but ends with a desire for the day to come, and for the sun to shine upon him and his lover. 

    ‘Busy old fool, unruly sun,
               Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?              


               She's all states, and all princes, I,
               Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honor's mimic, all wealth alchemy.
               Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
               In that the world's contracted thus.
         Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
         To warm the world, that's done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy center is, these walls, thy sphere.’ – ‘The Sun Rising’, John Donne

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