Oh, Bad Blues: Larkin, Plath, Donne, Bessie Smith, & The Metaphysical Dilemma of Radical Narcissism

by on Oct.02, 2012

The most important times to be awake are dawn and dusk, so that one might see both the open and close of the day; what happens in-between is insignificant, the abstract lyric – one need not be able to touch it to know that it was there. The edges of days create spaces in which form makes its demands upon the human participant: here is a beginning, here is an end; it’s up to you to fill in the rest.

The aubade is formally “loose” in that its parameters tend to be defined by the practitioner’s relationship to the concept of parting. Although traditionally, the purpose of the form is to address the beloved-other, aubades often become meditations on the dilemma of the body/soul divide of the speaker. The lyric takes the place of the physical body which cannot remain forever in bed with the beloved, and probably doesn’t want to. The meditation on time becomes a time-loop itself, serving to prolong the becoming-day not for the sake of more time with the beloved, but such that the speaker might revel in displeasure.



Larkin’s ‘Talking in Bed” is an excellent example, wherein the speaker appears totally uninterested in his bedfellow. Here, the tragedy of parting rests in the terror of sound, the solitude of day; dawn does not cause the break, utterance does. The plaintive gesture of the first line, “Talking in bed ought to be easiest,” denotes the fact that, at this distance from coupled silence, under-painted in the poem as some Whitman-esque ideal of nature, to speak is to break apart one’s humanity.

As far as aubades go, this one feels cold, blanketless – where is the joy in the agony, where is the longing? It creates itself through the speech-act, just as “the wind’s incomplete unrest / builds and disperses clouds in the sky.” Plath’s “April Aubade,” though hung with more troubadour bling – “snowdrop stars,” grass-garlanded lovers – plays a similar trick, draping the skeleton of daybreak’s despair only to arrive at the conclusion “Again we are deluded and infer / that somehow we are younger than we were,” an eerie echo to Larkin’s “Words at once true and kind, / Or not untrue and not unkind.”

Which raises the question – if the act of longing is what creates the despair, if it can be avoided through silence, and refusal, why write the poem? Because being-alive requires that the sun continues to rise. The poem, then, can function only as an inadequate container for the petulance of the troubadour lover upon the realization that they must, at or just after dawn, rise, and sing, that it is impossible for the singer to make any utterance in the presence of the beloved. Or, the wand’ring minstrel cannot wander chained.

Beauty, then, in the aubade, functions like Donne’s “rags of time” in “The Sun Rising,” draped by the dawn upon the constant-moment just before the morning’s first speech – a punctum. Metaphor serves to create systemic traps or arms for keeping the lovers in.

In Donne, Plath, and Larkin, the self is paramount, the lover almost entirely absent. This is intentional; the serenade, the aubade’s opposite, is meant to be sung to or for the beloved, whereas the aubade is meant to be whispered through the crack in the door just at the moment of escape, an indecipherable scrawl upon the beloved’s day. This forced silence, in that the beloved must never hear the aubade for it to take its effect, is an act of violence.




Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues” shows us the view from the other side, the body of the beloved which has been “taught” to bear the silence of the lover for the sake of continued partings, the agony of which are the soul’s only respite. We arrive at The Blues because the impending day is always-already shrouded in lack. The only certainty is that other burnt-end, twilight, which brings with it the promise of yet another agonizing dawn.

It would seem, after a study of the aubade, that the poet’s destiny is untenable loneliness, to lie with a lover for the sole sake of feeling the sadness of parting; the purpose of feeling the sadness is to sing of it. Love, then, becomes not about the other, but an act of radical narcissism; a means to Art.

This is not a new thing, although it’s a prevalent theme in so much new poetry, which is internet-y as it is “confessional” and has troubadour aspirations. That the fleeting loneliness of any given self should be important is a ruse that contemporary language allows. The flat affect of poets like Andrew Durbin and Steve Roggenbuck ascribe an importance to that which is common. There is not the urgent sense, as in Larkin and Plath, that without the utterance, or form’s container, the I of the lyric will self-destruct; rather, the self is already obliterated, chopped up and sifted through a sieve such that any loneliness, any lyric-I, could be the same.

What makes the metaphysical dilemma special, if not unique, is that it exists in the space just after the effort and before the completion of the tear. The body and soul are not yet rent, but they are somewhere in the midst of that process. What emerges from the ongoing rupture is delicate, baroque vomit, an undeniably human substance, the existence of which is totally outside bodily limits.

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4 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    “It would seem, after a study of the aubade, that the poet’s destiny is untenable loneliness, to lie with a lover for the sole sake of feeling the sadness of parting; the purpose of feeling the sadness is to sing of it.”

    This reminds me of what a film critic once said about Wong Kar-Wai, how all of his movies convey a sort of nostalgia for the present moment. And I like the idea of that, of how the future already haunts the present with its ghosts…how the future turns the present into a spectral presence…

  2. Johannes

    Taken to the extreme in that sci-fi movie he made!


  3. Carina

    I should also note Larkin’s actual “Aubade,” in which the lover is, if anything, death #angstfest

  4. Sarah Sarai

    “Metaphor serves to create systemic traps or arms for keeping the lovers in.” Metaphor is my faithful butler.