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Aubade

We've all heard of the serenade – the hopeful love song performed in the seclusion of night. But what about the aubade? When the privacy of darkness wears off and the sun rises to signal the start of a new day, secret lovers must part ways unless they wish to be discovered.

The aubade is a genre of poetry that expresses the frustration, sadness, and longing that comes with leaving a partner behind after a night of romance. For hundreds of years, poets have sought to portray these intense feelings of love and loss. Let's read more about the meaning of aubade, and its origins and explore some examples of poems to understand how the genre has evolved.

Aubade: summary

The aubade is a type of love poem. The most common definition of the genre is:

A love poem set in the morning that usually involves two lovers being forced to part ways.

However, as the genre has crossed cultural boundaries, the parameters that define the aubade have shifted. The most strict form of the genre defines that a departing man must sing the song to a sleeping woman in the morning. Other definitions propose that the aubade 'engages' with the dawn, either lamenting it or welcoming it.

For every common trope of the genre, there's a popular poem that doesn't follow the convention. This makes it difficult to define the genre in perfect terms. Let's look at the origin of the word, summarise its history in more detail, and focus on how the aubade has changed to suit contemporary audiences.

Did you know? The 'aubade' is the opposite of the more familiar 'serenade' genre, which is a love song performed at night instead of at dawn.

Aubade: meaning

The word 'aubade' originated from the Old Occitan word 'alba', which translates to 'sunrise'. Alba was a genre of lyric poetry that originated in the South of France in the High Middle Ages (AD 1000-1300). These poems were historically performed by the Troubadours.

The Troubadours were a school of poets that reached their peak between the eleventh and thirteenth century. They primarily resided in Provence, a region in Southeastern France, but also extended into Italy.

Original alba poems follow specific conventions relating to courtly love.

Courtly love is a traditional, conventionalised form of love between a knight and a married noblewoman. Typically, it involves the knight carrying out valiant deeds and singing beautiful odes in an attempt to win her over.

The typical alba poem centres around the dialogue between a man and a woman after they have spent the night together. Usually, they are forced to separate at sunrise because their love is forbidden, and they cannot afford to be discovered.

Oftentimes, a 'sentry' (a lookout) keeps watch and attempts to alert the lovers when it is time for them to wake up. The sentry is often berated for failing at their job and waking the couple too late or too early.

Aubade: poem

After the decline of the Troubadours in the mid-1300s, traditional alba poetry went into decline. The aubade poems that readers are more familiar with today began to arise in the seventeenth century as they resurged alongside the metaphysical poets.

Within poetry, the metaphysical centres around the exploration of abstract ideas and philosophical concepts. 'Meta' means beyond, and 'physics' refers to our physical world, so Metaphysics means beyond our world – outside of the ordinary.

These poems began to push the boundaries of the traditional genre and explore new ways to portray the theme of dawn. John Donne's 'The Sun Rising' (1633) is the most famous example of the metaphysical aubade, in which he battles back against the sun, refusing to let it move him and his lover from their bed.

Modern-day aubades frequently ignore the 'courtly love' focus of the traditional genre and instead pay particular attention to the feelings of frustration, despair, contemplation, or solitude that occur either when parting from someone or being alone in one's thoughts just before dawn. For example, Phillip Larkin's 'Aubade' (1977) depicts a narrator's fear of death as they lie in their bed contemplating their life in the early hours of the morning.

Aubade: form

Aubades have no prescribed form and often share very few conventions with each other. Aside from often being structured to begin at night and end in the day, two aubades rarely intentionally share similarities in meter, rhythm, or rhyme.

An aubade is instead recognisable through its content and the themes it deals with, like sunrise, love, and human emotion.

Aubade: examples

Let's look at some examples of aubade poetry.

'The Sun Rising' (1633) – John Donne

Donne was one of the first to alter the conventions of the aubade to suit his own personal style. The Sun Rising is a perfect example of this, as Donne subverts the genre by personifying the sun and reprimanding it for interrupting him and his lover.

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 school boys and sour prentices

– 'The Sun Rising', lines 1-6

Whereas most aubade poets would lament the fact that the sun had separated them from their lover, Donne instead fights back, arguing that with love comes the authority and power to decide to stay in bed all day.

Love, all alike, no season knows nor clime,

Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

– 'The Sun Rising', lines 9-10

While a typical aubade poet would express the control that daybreak has over them, Donne removes the sun's power to dictate the natural flow of life, arguing that love is the ultimate authority, and with it comes the power to stay in bed all day. This is typical of Donne's trademark wit, with which he often takes absurd standpoints and justifies them with outlandish metaphors.

'Aubade' (1977) – Philip Larkin

Alongside Donne's The Sun Rising, Philip Larkin's Aubade is the most recognisable example of the genre. It doesn't involve a lover at all and simply focuses on intense contemplation and human emotion occurring just before dawn.

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.

'Aubade' – Lines 3-7

To the narrator, the coming of dawn only symbolises another day closer to death, so much so that it makes all other thoughts impossible. Although Larkin is known for subverting expectations and creating dark imagery within his work, the move away from the traditional aubade themes also signifies the modernising of the genre. Human emotion is a far more relatable topic to portray to a contemporary audience than forbidden courtly love, and most modern aubade poets reflect this within their work.

Aubade - Key takeaways

  • An aubade is generally defined as 'a love poem set in the morning'.
  • The word 'aubade' derives from the word 'alba', a genre of Old Occitan poetry created by the Troubadours in Southern France between AD1000-1300.
  • Aubades follow no specific form and are defined only by their common theme of the morning.
  • The genre saw a resurgence in the 17th century alongside the metaphysical poets. John Donne, for example, often bent the rules of what aubade poetry could be.
  • Contemporary poets, like Philip Larkin, have used the aubade to focus on feelings of contemplation and sadness that occur at dawn.

Frequently Asked Questions about Aubade

An aubade is typically defined as 'a love poem set in the morning'. It usually features two lovers who have to part at dawn.

An aubade has no prescribed form, length, rhythm or meter. The only defining characteristic of the aubade is the themes it deals with.

The word 'aubade' is pronounced 'oh-bard'.

'I am going to publish an aubade'.

'She wrote an aubade for me'.

Some examples are 'The Sun Rising' (1633) – John Donne and 'Aubade' (1977) – Philip Larkin.

Final Aubade Quiz

Question

What is the aubade?

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Answer

The aubade is a genre of poetry that expresses the frustration, sadness, and longing that comes with leaving a partner behind after a night of romance.

Show question

Question

How does aubade relate to serenade?

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Answer

The 'aubade' is the opposite of the more familiar 'serenade' genre, which is a love song performed at night instead of at dawn.

Show question

Question

Describe the origin of the word aubade. 

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Answer

The word 'aubade' originated from the Old Occitan word 'alba', which translates to 'sunrise'.

Show question

Question

Where did aubade originate?

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Answer

It originated in the South of France in the High Middle Ages (AD 1000-1300).

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Question

Who were the Troubadours?

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Answer

The Troubadours were a school of poets that reached their peak between the eleventh and thirteenth century.

Show question

Question

What was the importance of the Troubadours in relation to aubade?

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Answer

Aubade poems were historically performed by the Troubadours.

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Question

What is courtly love?

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Answer

Courtly love is a traditional, conventionalised form of love between a knight and a married noblewoman.

Show question

Question

Describe the typical alba poem. 

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Answer

The typical alba poem centres around the dialogue between a man and a woman after they have spent the night together. Usually, they are forced to separate at sunrise because their love is forbidden, and they cannot afford to be discovered.


Often times, a 'sentry' (l a ookout) keeps watch, and attempts to alert the lovers when it is time for them to wake up.

Show question

Question

When did the traditional alba poem go into decline?

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Answer

After the decline of the Troubadours in the mid-1300s.

Show question

Question

When did the aubade poems arise?

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Answer

They began to arise in the seventeenth century as they resurged alongside the metaphysical poets

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Question

What is the most famous example of the metaphysical aubade?

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Answer

John Donne's, 'The Sun Rising' (1633).

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Question

What is the difference between modern-day aubades and olden-day aubades?

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Answer

Modern-day aubades frequently ignore the 'courtly love' focus of the traditional genre, and instead pay particular attention to the feelings of frustration, despair, contemplation, or solitude that occur either when parting from someone, or being alone in one's thoughts just before dawn.

Show question

Question

How can an aubade be recognised?

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Answer

It can be recognised through its content, and the themes it deals with, like sunrise, love, and human emotion.

Show question

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