The speaker tells his love to “Lay your sleeping head” on the speaker’s “faithless” arm. He thinks about how time and sickness can take away a child’s individual beauty, but it matters little because the grave claims us all anyway. However, until death comes, the speaker hopes his lover will lie in his arms, both alive and “entirely beautiful.”
For lovers, there are no bounds of soul and body. The speaker’s mind wanders to lovers lying on Venus’s “enchanted slope,” swooning and dreaming and feeling her sympathy, love, and hope for them. While they sleep a hermit’s “carnal ecstasy” is awakened as he roams vast glaciers and rocks.
When midnight strikes, certainty and fidelity fade away, and “fashionable madmen” raise up a cry. Every cent must be paid, and the Tarot cards say it will be paid; however, while the lovers lie together tonight, they will not lose a whisper, a kiss, or a thought.
Everything passes, including beauty, midnight, and vision. The speaker looks down at his lover. He says he hopes that the breezes of dawn blowing about his lover’s head will bring a welcome day, that the “noons of dryness” will fulfill his lover, and that “nights of insult” will let the lover go by, observed by human love.
One of Auden’s beloved love poems, “Lullaby” was written in the 1930s. It has no consistent rhyme scheme, and there are many metrical variations. Zsusza Rawlinson writes that it is “justly famous, melodiously lyrical, and incantatorial.” It consists of four 10-line stanzas, mostly unrhymed but with regular patterns: lines 3 and 7 of each stanza rhyme, and the other pairs share consonance or assonance in each stanza: lines 1 and 5, lines 2 and 4, lines 6 and 10, and lines 8 and 9. The resulting pattern is thus ABCBADCEED. (Perhaps a hidden message in the rhyme scheme, "bad seed," referring to the illicit love?)
The poem begins with the speaker addressing his lover, perhaps in a post-coital situation. He looks down at the lover sleeping on his own “faithless” arm, giving the reader a bit of pause regarding what kind of lullaby or love poem this is. One critic, Edward Mendelson, argues that it is “the first English poem in which a lover proclaims, in moral terms and during a shared night of love, his own faithlessness. Hundreds of earlier poems lamented or confessed faithlessness, but the lyric tradition complained of the beloved’s inconsistency, not the poet’s.”
The speaker becomes introspective, musing on how the beauty of innocent children is robbed from them by the vicissitudes of life—“Time and fevers”—as well as the looming mortality of all human beings: “the grave / Proves the child ephemeral.” He shifts his focus to the present, however, having his lover in his arms all night, “mortal, guilty” but still, for now, “entirely beautiful.” The fleeting overnight joy is worthwhile even if his lover will eventually age and die, and even if his lover is guilty for engaging in the tryst.
The second stanza Auden ruminates further on the nature of short-term love. The boundaries between lover and lover, body and soul, are erased, although their love is “ordinary.” The goddess Venus is who makes them feel like they are in “supernatural sympathy,” filled with “love and hope.” The stanza concludes, however, with one perhaps discordant element: imagery of a hermit in the wilderness experiencing an “abstract insight” that awakens the hermit’s “carnal ecstasy.” The image is a bit abstruse; interpretations include Auden’s allusion to the isolation of homosexual men during the era in which he was writing, or the ability for even a hermit to be affected by the pangs of love.
The third stanza continues this theme of the difficulties of such a tryst. One imagines the speaker still awake as midnight passes, making all the more real the infidelity and increasing the speaker’s uncertainty. Another cryptic line refers to “fashionable madmen,” which might suggest that those who have no vision larger than the fashions are the real madmen; these are the people, perhaps, who use conventional morality to judge the tryst. True enough, “Every farthing of the cost, / All the dreaded cards foretell, / Shall be paid,” meaning that conventional justice will come to haunt them. Even so, this night is for the speaker and his lover, whatever others may say.
Indeed, in the fourth stanza the speaker returns to the beauty of their love. When dawn comes, he hopes, it will be “a day of welcome,” or at least tolerable enough. While his lover may be unfulfilled during the day (“Noons of dryness”) despite being officially attached to someone else, the speaker hopes that the “involuntary powers” of love will carry his lover through the day. Likewise, “Nights of insult let you pass / Watched by every human love.” The poem, despite its realistic outlook on mortality and its disappointment with traditional norms of fidelity, is a potent expression of a hope for timeless and profound love that extends beyond a single adulterous night.