The aubade is a dawn song that greets the morning while lamenting the end of the night, often concerning the parting of lovers.
History of the Aubade Form
The earliest European examples of the aubade are from the twelfth century. The word aubade was adopted by the French from the Spanish alba, meaning sunrise. Some scholars believe the aubade originated from the medieval watchman’s cry announcing the end of night and return of day. However it arose, the fact that the aubade is found in nearly all early poetries shows that the dawn song resonates across cultures.
The aubade recalls the delight shared by lovers in darkness and the joy of togetherness. But there is also a reflective, yearning quality to the form as it progresses and describes parting at dawn. With this parting comes the realization of individual consciousness, as the separated speaker in daylight longs for what has been lost. The typical aubade flows from the darkness just before dawn to the brightness directly afterward. It moves from silence to speech, from the ecstasy of intimacy to the burden of solitude.
A quintessential aubade is “The Sun Rising” by John Donne, though Donne rebels against the convention of separation with the speaker of the poem remaining in bed with his lover. The poem begins as the day brightens and the speaker chides the sun.
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' seasons run?
Poets throughout time have shaped the aubade in distinctive ways. For example, there is no beloved at all in Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” a terrifying spiritual confrontation with oblivion. The poem begins as aubades traditionally do, with the speaker encountering the morning, before Larkin moves the poem in a more somber direction.
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,
Many modern poets have found inspiration in this form as well, such as Emily Skaja’s “Aubade with Attention to Pathos,” Devin Johnston’s “Aubade,” and Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ “Aubade to Langston.” While some aubades, such as “Aubade” by Camille Rankine and “Aubade: Lake Erie” by Thomas Merton may not include the traditional presence of a sleeping lover, they each exist in the early morning and embody the sense of longing that often characterizes a time of transition.