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Time of Not-to-End: Temporality and the Aubade

By: Quinn Forlini


I’m fascinated with the way that poetry can manipulate time: making a moment slow or

quicken, making the past come alive again, and holding multiple timelines at once. The aubade is

a poetic form that allows for a meditative state and wide emotional range precisely because of

the time restraint that it imposes. As the form has changed from its original parameters from

medieval France—originating as a song to a sleeping woman after spending the night together—

the only real restriction of the form today is that it takes place at the arrival of dawn. The fact that

the aubade is defined as occurring at “the arrival of the dawn,” as opposed to dawn itself, is

important—this arrival is a moment of transition, from darkness to light, suspended between

night and day, neither here or there, containing both and neither (Poetry Foundation). The poetic

moment of the aubade holds a beginning and an ending, and so it seems to stand in for a larger

human understanding of time. The sky and human consciousness shift alongside one another,

connecting the human state with the natural world. This multiplicity could be why the aubade is

defined as a poem either “welcoming or lamenting” this arrival: across aubades, there are wide

tonal, emotional, and lyrical differences, and aubades often contain elements of both celebration

and mourning (Poetry Foundation). What other form can hold so many oppositions and

contradictions in its very definition? There is something about the limitations of when the aubade

can take place that force these poems to hold a keen awareness of temporality. This suspension of

a moment makes daybreak—and aubades—at once ordinary and magical, definitive and fleeting,

and valuable to poetry.

As a poem that contains a simultaneous beginning and ending, I am particularly

interested in how aubades begin and end—and how they do this with a self-awareness of the

limited time that they exist within. In Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” one of the most famous

contemporary American examples of the form, the speaker begins by orienting himself in where

he is in time, creating a scene fixated on the importance of the moment: “Waking at four to

soundless dark, I stare” (Larkin l. 2). The speaker finds it necessary to note the time of night, and

acknowledges that “[i]n time the curtain-edges will grow light,” showing his awareness of the

moment’s fleeting nature, and adds that “Till then I see what’s really always there: / Unresting

death, a whole day nearer now” (Larkin ll. 3, 4-5). The speaker’s awareness of time facilitates an

awareness of consciousness, and just as he knows that the night will end, he also acknowledges

that his own ability to “see what’s really always there” will end as well. In the first few lines, the

poem creates a liminal and urgent space that enables the speaker to meditate on death, as he is

aware that his very ability to consider death in this way will end soon. He must capture the

moment now; there is no other time.

In Lynda Hull’s “Aubade,” the speaker similarly orients herself by noting the exact time

in the first line, saying “Below the viaduct, the 5:05’s stiff wind snares / the whole block in its

backlash” (ll. 1-2). The speaker believes that “the morning fairly aches with promise,” and this

seems to be true because the morning has not happened yet. In the way that approaching dawn

facilitates meditation in Larkin’s “Aubade,” Hull’s speaker implies that the time of day allows

for a unique human connection: “only / insomniacs are out, the million-dollar dreamers … What

joins me to my neighbor is this // silent complicity” (Hull ll. 3-4, 5-6). Although the speaker and

the neighbor never have an explicit interaction in the course of the poem, this time that they are

both awake and in one another’s presence prompts the speaker to meditate on connection,

loneliness, and isolation in a way that most likely wouldn’t be acknowledged at all in the middle

of a bright and bustling day. As the speaker watches the neighbor doing calisthenics on his fire

escape, the neighbor’s loneliness seems to reflect the speaker’s own loneliness, which is never

directly stated: “A month ago [my neighbor] came home / to an empty flat and that emptiness

turns / its dull blade inside his chest” (Hull ll. 9-11). The speaker uses the distance of the

neighbor to delve into this kind of painful emptiness, and the ability to acknowledge this seems

possible because of the quiet emptiness of this time of day, and the fact that it will end.

Hull’s speaker admits that “It’s easy / to understand, at times like this, the sudden / desire

to commend oneself into the hands / of sympathetic strangers” (Hull ll. 15-18). Again, the

speaker is aware that it’s “times like this” that enable understanding, which allows the poem to

provide an understanding of the time itself, later observing how the neighbor “touches toes / until

the fog rolls down the hill like a memory / that wants losing” (Hull ll. 34-36). The speaker’s

observations of the neighbor become conflated not only with the self and the meditation, but with

the time of day. Similarly, in Larkin’s aubade, the speaker’s description of the state of being dead

appears to also reflect the state of being suspended between day and night, in the way that all

aubades are: “Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere, / And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing

more true” (ll. 18-20). The self-awareness of the speaker seems to spread in the aubade, allowing

for an all-knowing quality to the voice. Both Larkin’s and Hull’s aubades reach moments of

certainty and clarity, in which the speakers make encompassing and confident statements. Hull’s

speaker declares, “This business of being human / should not be such a lonely proposition” (ll.

25-26). In Larkin’s aubade, the speaker makes strings of these kinds of assertions, including

“Courage is no good: / It means not scaring others. Being brave / Lets no one off the grave. /

Death is no different whined at than withstood” (ll. 37-40). The speakers’ sense of authority

regarding matters of uncertainty seems to increase as each of these aubades unfold, as if the fact

that the clock is running out on the acknowledged limitation of time heightens the poem’s ability

to make its meditative claims.

The matter-of-fact and exacting tone of Larkin’s and Hull’s aubades is also present in

Gwendolyn Brooks’ “An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire.” This aubade explores the

arrival of dawn in a more traditional context, as a time when two lovers must say goodbye to one

another as their night together is ending. The poem recognizes the temporality of the moment

immediately, as with Larkin’s and Hull’s aubades, opening with “In a package of minutes there is

this We” (Brooks l. 1). Right away the poem is controlled by a “package of minutes” that has to

end. Brooks’ aubade exemplifies the simultaneity of the speaker’s shift in consciousness with the

shift of the outside world from night to morning. In the opening stanza, the lovers are laughing

and touching, but then are interrupted because “A physical light is in the room” (Brooks 6). After

daylight emerges and interrupts the lovers, the speaker suggests a causal relationship between the

arrival of dawn and the lovers’ state of being and connection to one another: “Because the world

is at the window / we cannot wonder very long” (Brooks 7-8). It is important that the moment of

wonder is going to end but has not ended yet, because suddenly, in the awareness and

acknowledgement that the wonder will end soon, the wonder itself becomes urgent. In fact, it

seems that the poem’s wonder would not be possible without the fact that the speaker recognizes

that it will not last “very long”; it is the speakers’ awareness of the limitation of time that allows

for the poem’s meditative space. The speaker begins to observe the lover in this new “physical

light” and transforms him with the comparison that he is “direct and self-accepting as a lion / in

Afrikan velvet” (Brooks ll. 13-14). It is only when the speaker knows that her sense of wonder

will end imminently, that the wonder itself seems to truly begin. 

The recognition of the dawn’s new light offers a turning point in the aubades by Hull and

Larkin as well, further suggesting that the external control of time directly engages and impacts

the poems’ speakers. In the first half of Hull’s aubade, the speaker describes the early-morning

street as “washed in black and white, / jittery as a sixteen-millimeter reel,” suggesting that

nothing in the world is visually clear or definitive yet, in turn making meditative definability

possible for the speaker (ll. 14-15). Later, the speaker again describes the outside world as the

light begins to emerge: “My neighbor / crawls back through his window … and above // the

plummeting alley, a sleek gray seam of sky” (ll. 40-43). The temporal space is coming to a close,

and the sky is easily described as a “seam,” suggesting definable edges. In Larkin’s poem, the

speaker acknowledges the light just as he acknowledges the “soundless dark” in the opening of

the poem, now stating that, “Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape” (ll. 41-42). This

speaker also turns to the sky, describing it as “white as clay, with no sun” (l. 48). For both poems,

this recognition of light and a visually definable space shifts the focus from an isolated self to the

outside world, placing the self in a larger context.

All three of these aubades end with this outward turn to the world beyond the self, while

also remaining inside the liminal space, the “package of minutes,” that they establish initially.

In other words, each poem uses restraint even in this widening of scope, never completely

immersing itself in the outside world or reaching the point of pure day, but nevertheless

identifying the day’s inevitable and fast-approaching arrival. In Larkin’s aubade, the objects in

the world feel pregnant with purpose; nothing is happening yet but the speaker’s awareness of

the precise way things will occur escalates the suspension of the moment as it ends. He writes,

“telephones crouch, getting ready to ring / In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring intricate

rented world begins to rouse” (ll. 45-47). Hull’s aubade offers a similar rhetorical structure at the

same point as the Larkin poem does, when Hull’s speaker says, “Pretty soon deals will go down

all over the city. / The fruit vendor will appear singing strawberries / and watermelons. From

their tanks, lobsters / in the seafood markets will wave pincers” (ll. 44-47). The listing and vivid

imagery of these lines seems to make the outside world in each of these poems come to life, and

yet the scenes exist in a speculative space. Although both speakers know the predictable patterns

of the both the natural and human worlds around them, the careful attention to tense and

language gives a miraculous—if not necessarily welcomed—sensibility to the oncoming day.

Brooks’ poem comes the closest to fully engaging with the new day, as it follows the

speaker and her lover to the street, where they smile, then “go / in different directions / down the

imperturbable street” (ll. 22-24). But the poem remains in the liminal space of the “we,” ending 

just as the lovers separate. The lovers seem to be swallowed by the “imperturbable street” in its

very non-reaction; the outside world does not embody the pain or sorrow of the lovers parting—

rather, the street absorbs whatever emotion they might feel. By turning to the inanimate and

unfazed street, the poem does not allow space for the emotions of the day or the parting itself.

Instead, as an aubade, the poem is interested in the moment before the arrival of dawn, before the

light is in the room, when things are temporarily vague and undefined. The speaker returns to

this temporal moment just before the final stanza, and tries to articulate it now that it’s ending:

“There is a moment in Camaraderie / when interruption is not to be understood / … This is the

shining joy; / the time of not-to-end” (Brooks 16-17, 19-20). Within the poem’s hyper awareness

of time, it reaches a paradox: how can this moment of camaraderie be defined as “the time of

not-to-end” when the very tension that began the poem was that this moment was going to end? 

The speaker tries to explain the moment of presence that the lovers experienced before

dawn, but only feels the urgency to express this after the experience has passed—since, of

course, she was too present in the moment to reflect or meditate on it while it was happening.

Perhaps in the meditative state of the aubade it is possible to have an awareness of time, but there

remains an incommunicable aspect to the form because there cannot be a simultaneous 

awareness of time and presence within time. When the light inevitably comes again in Larkin’s

poem, the speaker recognizes—fleetingly—that along with the room taking shape, something

else “stands plain as a wardrobe”: “what we know / Have always known, know that we can’t

escape, / Yet can’t accept” (Larkin ll. 42, 42-44). This references both the smaller passage of time

from one day into another and our larger mortality. The aubade can contain both scopes at once

because the concept of time ultimately remains a mystery—allowing room for multiplicity—

even while the aubade works to make sense of its passage. As all of these aubades attempt to

express what’s inexpressible, they reach a place of strangeness in which time starts to become

unrecognizable. At the end of Hull’s aubade, time and the outside world become impossible and

unreadable, as perceived by the speaker thinking about the future of the day: “lobsters / in the

seafood markets will wave pincers as if / imploring the broken factory clock that registers // 9:99

in the morning, 0° even in the heart of summer” (Hull ll. 46-48). It’s not that the speaker has lost

her awareness of time, but that through the meditative state of the aubade she’s reached an

understanding beyond how we normally measure the phenomena of the natural world. “9:99 in

the morning” indicates that the speaker can no longer use the language she used in the beginning

of the poem to talk about time, or maybe that the traditional way of telling time is meaningless in

this moment, in the same way that the speaker in Brooks’ poem tries to describe the moment of

joy with her lover as “the time of not-to-end.”

Yet nothing feels especially clarified, particularly because, although we knew it was

coming, it’s difficult to accept that the temporal meditative state is passing. In the final line of

Hull’s poem, there is an uncertain and almost desperate tone to the voice when she says,

“Answer me. What am I to make of these signs?” (Hull l. 50). In this last moment between

what’s ending and what’s beginning, the speaker tries to find sense and order in the world again.

She attempts this by evoking human connection in the demand or plea to someone or something

unknown to us: “Answer me.” The address evokes a human connection and something larger

than oneself, although no answer is given. The openness of this ending captures the potential of

the aubade’s range, which is possible because it pushes us even though we know exactly where

it’s going. Within the package of minutes that the form allows, the aubade leads us to the brink of

understanding, and just when we think we’re about to uncover the complexity of human emotion,

it becomes day.




Quinn Forlini holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Virginia and a BA from Ursinus College, where she now teaches creative writing. She was a finalist for the 2018 Backwaters Press Prize, and her recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Greensboro Review, The Journal, and the Fourth River. She lives in Phoenixville, PA.


Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “An Aspect of Love, Alive in the Ice and Fire.” Poetry Foundation.

Web.


“Glossary Terms: Aubade.” Poetry Foundation. Web.


Hull, Lynda. “Aubade.” Star ledger: poems. Iowa City: U of Iowa Press, 1991. Print.


Larkin, Philip. “Aubade.” Poetry Foundation. Web.

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