“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.” Henry David Thoreau famously declared this sentiment in his treatise on the purpose of life, Walden (1854).
After tussling with his crotchety observations about materialism, social climbing, and bad architecture in the “Economy” chapter of Walden, my students read these words with exuberant relief. How could these words fail to inspire? Thoreau makes the dawn a leitmotif in Walden, evoking it not just here, but in the epigraph (“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up”) and in the final paragraph (“The sun is but a morning star”). Thoreau, the rooster, calls us to the dawn, calls us to recognize the possibilities of life.
Perhaps this is why there is a whole genre of poetry devoted to the dawn. They are called aubades. Early on, the aubade often depicted that most poignant (or perhaps embarrassing) of moments, the parting of lovers at dawn, as in John Donne’s “The Sun Rising,” from the early 17th century:
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys, and sour ’prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear: “All here in one bed lay.”
She is all states, and all princes I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compar’d to this,
All honour’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 centre is, these walls, thy sphere.
What I love about this poem is that Donne takes a specific moment in the day–the dawn– and transforms it into a continuous state. On the one hand he compresses the love of the couple into a single moment, “contracted thus,” yet at the same time makes that moment represent all time, since “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime.” A classic Donne-ian paradox. It’s a fleeting moment, but one that we wish could characterize all of our consciousness–the moment when one is awake is when there is a dawn in one. It’s also a moment of parting, leaving behind sleep and dreams, possibly even a lover.
Another way of viewing the dawn, of course, is that it’s the moment when one has to face reality. The aubade usually doesn’t do more than hint at this darker view of sunrise, but in doing the research for this post I was really struck by this “anti-aubade” by Philip Larkin, first published in 1977. It probably is the only kind of aubade he was capable of writing.
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.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. 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.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
There might be a specific name for the stanza structure Larkin uses here (if you know, please clue me in!), but I see the poem as a modified sonnet sequence, where each stanza is made up of 10 lines that are divided into 4, 2, and then 4– rhyming abab (like an English sonnet), then a rhymed couplet (like the final couplet of an English sonnet), and then a quatrain rhyming abba (like an Italian sonnet).
Totally equivocal, indecisive, using the rhymed couplet in the middle of the stanza like a fulcrum, the poem teeters at the moment of the dawn, horrified by the sight of “The sky … white as clay, with no sun,” caught between darkness and light, between life and death (or between the anaesthesia of sleep and the living death of office life and postmen), between what is and what will never be, between “here” and “everywhere.”
This poem explains why so many people would rather sleep in than face the day.
I guess I’ve been thinking about the aubade as the days finally are getting longer after a long, snowy winter. Everyone here in Baltimore seems to be emerging from hibernation. Trees are leafing out, the bulbs have burst into bloom. It’s suddenly spring.
Which means it’s also time for baseball. I am not a lifelong fan, and so the beginning of the baseball season calls up a weird mix of emotions that still feel new. On the one hand, opening day heralds summer, sunshine and cold beer. On the other hand, I also steel myself. 162 games, played nearly every day for six months, is a long (some would say interminable) haul. Baseball is a commitment. Like the dawn, the beginning of baseball season is full of promise, but also reminds us, as Larkin writes, that “Most things will never happen.” Last year the Orioles had a fantastic season, then finally got swept by the formerly lowly Royals in the ALCS … one stop shy of the World Series. I think that was our big chance. But there’s always hope. Here’s my attempt to express all that.
Ah yes, the dawn. Beat your chest
and yawp, barbarically–
Why not just lay back on your couch
or hammock, if you like–
Your radio to the home opener,
static like bees’ buzz.
Cracks out high into cloudless sky:
and then, drops over
Out of sight, a harbinger
Of the opposite
Header image “Baltimore at sunrise” by Addison Berry, 2010.