A poem or piece of music concerning, or accompanying, dawn; a song or poem of lovers parting at dawn.
From French, can be traced to Old Provençal and to Latin alba/auba, meaning dawn.
Think of lovers parting at dawn and you’re likely to remember Romeo and Juliet (or Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, depending on age and film preferences). James Shapiro writes that Shakespeare was described as the poet of the ‘heart-robbing line’ by a contemporary whom history has since forgotten, and few lines in English are as ‘heart-robbing’ as Romeo’s ‘But soft, what light through yonder window breaks…’
Not that Shakespeare would have thought of Romeo’s parting speech as an aubade. The first known use of the term occurred almost a century later, and aubade has always been considered somewhat arcane. Curiously, the word for an evening song has passed into common usage: serenade comes from the Italian sera, meaning evening, and can be traced back to the Latin sero (‘at a late hour’). Why serenade should have been welcomed into the language while aubade was left to skulk on the periphery like a 13-year-old boy at a school disco is hard to explain: do parting lovers sing more frequently at evening?
Aubade has its roots in poetry, and continues to be thought of as a ‘poetic’ word (here, the inverted commas around poetic represent a supressed sneer of condescension). In fact, it served as the title for what A.N. Wilson (writing in The Telegraph, so we needn’t take him that seriously) described as ‘the one poem, written in England in my lifetime, of unquestionable greatness.’
Aubade was one of the last major poems published by Philip Larkin, the undisputed master of suburban early morning melancholia (think of these wonderful lines in Sad Steps: ‘Four o’clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie/ Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.’). As in Sad Steps, it’s four o’clock:
‘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…’
Larkin’s Aubade probably won’t be coming to a Hallmark greetings card near you anytime soon, but it’s a superb poem and contains a particularly unforgettable depiction of religion as ‘That vast moth-eaten musical brocade/ Created to pretend we never die.’
Almost single-handedly, Larkin revived aubade and added it to the poetic lexicon. Working in his long shadow, whether aware of it or not, we find Louise Glück, whose own Aubade begins ‘There was one summer/ That returned many times over…’ and James Hoch, whose poem Palouse contains ‘the bright hour when wind does not act/ aubade and elegy commune collapse…’ Back in England, there’s Nick Laird (who probably doesn’t want to be described as Mr. Zadie Smith, but will be anyway) whose acerbic Aubade begins ‘Go home. I haven’t slept alone/ in weeks and need to reach across/ the sheets to find not warmth but loss.‘
In the minds of most English-language poetry readers, ‘aubade’ casts a light just strong enough to make Larkin temporarily visible, and — as is the case with so many distinctive words — is best employed with caution. As Virginia Woolf once said of ‘the splendid word incarnadine’, it ‘belongs to multitudinous seas’ in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Aubade evokes 4 o’clock existential crises and Larkin as incarnadine evokes multitudinous seas and Shakespeare.
Still, no writer owns copyright on a single word, and we can trace aubade back beyond Larkin’s poem. Aubade appears as a character in Thomas Pynchon’s Entropy, published in 1960: a ‘half-alien’ woman living in a sealed hothouse with a man called Callisto. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and mystic, wrote several aubades, including Aubade — The City (‘Now that the clouds have come like cattle/ To the cold waters of the city’s river’), Aubade — Lake Erie (‘When sun, light handed, sows this Indian water/ With a crop of cockles’) and Aubade — Harlem (‘Across the cages of the keyless aviaries…’), all of which may one day be rediscovered and celebrated as major poems.
Aubade is unusual enough to make it on to the list of rare words at the truly wonderful International House of Logorrhea, but it should be familiar to all lovers of poetry and to everyone who has ever sung to their lover at dawn (I know you’re out there somewhere!). Besides, it’s exactly the sort of word you need when you’re stuck with all the vowels in an intense game of Scrabble/ Words With Friends (the game that would have been called Scrabble if lawsuits didn’t exist).