‘Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm.’
The quotation is a tool used by writers, orators, politicians and journalists with unavoidable frequency. They often give our arguments a certain un-earned weight by allowing us to tie our colours to culturally established masts. By making an attack on an opponent which is festooned with a citation from Homer, I back them into a corner, for any retaliation they make is not simply against me but, by implication, against the entire Western tradition.
There is therefore an incredibly stable currency in quotations. We seek them out and save them for a rhetorical rainy day. We build up great arsenals of borrowed wit so that, when caught on the back foot, we can ‘bite the matter off with a smile’ and deploy a perfect gobbet with an air of having limitless wider reading to call upon.
For such uses, it is the prerequisite of the quotation that it be easily memorable and, as a result, often very short. This is where the poetry steps up to the plate. The poem should, to quote Ezra Pound, “consist of gists and piths” and, to quote Don Paterson, be a “machine for remembering itself”.
Poetry is often the first port of call for the novelist in search of an epigraph, or a speech-maker hoping to give a sense of elevation or flourish to their address.
This can sometimes be down to the traditional poet’s propensity for rhyme. Anyone with a knowledge of the aural tradition will tell you that the poet’s standard box of tricks – rhyme, meter, alliteration, assonance, etc. – are devices for tying ideas together into memorable chunks in times when there was no ready availability of pen, paper, print, ink or literacy. As a teacher I still do it today to help remember the names of my pupils when I first meet them, 'Lovely Lauren', 'Jude the Dude', 'New-Rave Dave'... that sort of thing.
It is not simply aurality that makes poetry so ripe for quotations however. It is the duty of the poet to take the universal and imbue it with a boiled down specificity that gives each word in a poem the bulging strain of an over-packed suitcase. It will always come to be that the most quoted poets are the ones who have spent the longest time sat on their suitcases, forcing the reluctant zip closed. To push the image further – the empty case and the bloated one look the same until picked up for inspection – at which point it becomes clear which of our holiday-makers have come prepared for the long journey.
One such dedicated packer is the oft-quoted W. H. Auden. I adore Auden’s poetry and have watched ‘Four Weddings’ enough to more or less have Funeral Blues off by heart, but it is one particular pair of lines from his extensive oeuvre that I always hear quoted as a summation of his talent. I am, of course, referring to the opening of Lullabye:
“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm.”
What is interesting about this is that the phrase does not serve an immediate rhetorical purpose in the same was as many of Shakespeare’s sententiae or Plato’s proverbs. What’s more, it doesn’t even rhyme. So why has it stuck in so many minds and been quoted so often?
Put simply, these eleven words are pulling their weight a thousand times over in terms of being a connotative vessel.
Were the lines to read ‘Lay your sleeping head on my arm, my love’, of course this phrase would disappear into bland unremarkability. Because of those vital qualifying adjectives, ‘human’ and ‘faithless’ however, we have something irreproachably profound which could be discussed inexhaustibly.
Because ‘human’ stands for both mortality and fallibility, and because ‘faithless’ stands for both atheism and adultery, we have a real mix-and-match of myriad meanings to this poem, all of which are essential to Auden’s argument.
It is quite essential to this second line’s delicate balance that the adjectives are in the order that they are… ‘faithless on my human arm’ would not do at all, for Auden must have the sense of agency for this poem to take effect. It is therefore also important that Auden is awake whilst his lover sleeps; sleep being symbolic of vulnerability and death (an idea explored to the extreme in Romeo and Juliet).
Beyond the purely literal ‘awake’ and ‘asleep’ however, we have the sense of Auden seeing his lover as being in a dream-world of sorts… perhaps because he does not suspect his ‘faithless’ nature, perhaps because his lover does not share Auden’s atheistic intellectualism and perhaps because his youthful lover simply has not the breadth of experience which make Auden such a realist.
Beyond these opening lines, Lullaby is a poem which goes on to explore an intellectual atheist’s need for worldly happiness, as well as dealing with the capricious nature of love and the need for fleeting moments of bliss in the unstoppable lead-up to age’s unattractive decrepitude.
On the stroke of midnight pass,
Like the vibrations of a bell”
writes Auden later on in this poem. He urges his lover to “find the mortal world enough” and to acknowledge the transience of things with his mention that ‘the grave / proves the child ephemeral’ (almost as a direct rejection of Shakespeare’s ‘procreation sonnets’ which, as an homosexual, Auden will have likely seen as an unappealing model for immortality).
Indeed, on this theme of homosexuality, we gain yet another meaning of ‘faithless’ within the opening of this poem. ‘Faithless’ as one who not only rejects, but is rejected by mainstream Christianity, in a society where homosexuality is still a taboo and so it is that Auden conveys a need to enjoy “the hermit’s carnal ecstasy”… that is to say he must have what guilty pleasures he can whilst existing ‘underground’.
It is because of the iconic opening lines however that Auden appears to have accidentally sabotaged his own poem, which scarcely lives up to the succinct beauty of its start. With this superbly charged opening, the poem Lullaby becomes, in posterity, a competent bed from which to rouse everyone’s favourite couple of lines. This quotable opening, this first eleven, do their job too well and, as a result, nobody seems all that fussed with the remaining 38 lines.
The sad fact of this poem is that it never touches anything that cannot be more or less summarised in its opening, like an exploitation movie which gives away all of its most important plot points in the trailer. It’s all there, perfectly rendered for all to see in the opening:
‘Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm.’
The infidelity, the atheism, the sense of superiority, the sense that Auden’s intellectuality stops him from engaging in the beautiful dream-world that everyone else is wrapped in, the separation of the homosexual from mainstream society, the fallibility of man, the sense of mortality, the idea of the elder in the couple having to act as a support to the younger and most importantly, Auden’s sense of what, I suppose, should be referred to as ‘love’.
It’s all here in these eleven words. Just like that over-packed suitcase. For this reason alone, it deserves to be part of the quotation canon, I just wonder how Auden would feel about the idea that his most famous poem negates itself before it even leaves the starting block.