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Where Nocturnes & Aubades Meet

Notice how, as readers, we naturally take the unfamiliar and make it familiar? It’s hardwired, and one of the many reasons readers like to read.

Take nocturnes. I associate them with classical music, but according to Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, “The nocturne became a European musical type in the nineteenth century, a pensive, moody instrumental piece especially suitable for playing at night, and thereafter poetic nocturnes evoke the melancholy feelings or tonalities of piano nocturnes.”

So, yes, there’s a line to be drawn between classical music and poetry, but the nocturne as a poetic genre predates this angle, going all the way back to John Donne in 1633, when he wrote “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day.” (Great title, John.)

For a modern take on the genre that stands opposite to aubades (“a dawn song expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak,” according to Hirsch, Romeo, & Juliet… the famous law firm), let’s look at Irish poet Eavan Boland’s poem by that name. As you read, keep the noise down. It’s late!


Nocturne by Eavan Boland

After a friend has gone I like the feel of it:
The house at night. Everyone asleep.
The way it draws in like atmosphere or evening.

One-o-clock. A floral teapot and a raisin scone.
A tray waits to be taken down.
The landing light is off. The clock strikes. The cat

comes into his own, mysterious on the stairs,
a black ambivalence around the legs of button-back
chairs, an insinuation to be set beside

the red spoon and the salt-glazed cup,
the saucer with the thick spill of tea
which scalds off easily under the tap. Time

is a tick, a purr, a drop. The spider
on the dining-room window has fallen asleep
among complexities as I will once

the doors are bolted and the keys tested
and the switch turned up of the kitchen light
which made outside in the back garden

an electric room—a domestication
of closed daisies, an architecture
instant and improbable.


Here’s the thing: As a reader, I’m a horrible audience for this piece. I read it and think: “Ah. Nocturne as ode to late night. Written for night owls by a night owl.”

But as a reader, I have innate strategies that work without my even knowing it. The poem’s speaker likes the feel of “The house at night. Everyone asleep,” and I identify, even though I am reliably the first person asleep in my household and always have been, barring the years when my kids were very young.

Foreign as the concept of the nocturne is, however, my inner reader flips the narrative. It reads, “The house before dawn. Everyone asleep.” Ah. Now that’s a house I know. A pensive and moody time that evokes “melancholy feelings or tonalities.”

Do you think cats don’t “come into their own” and become “mysterious” at 4 a.m., too? I wouldn’t know, having little congress with cats over the years, but I know that dogs are a different breed at that hour, as is the lighting, as are my feelings both when reading and writing. It’s a magical time with richer possibility than other times of the day.

And so, it’s enough. My unconscious, mental “switch” conveniently expands inexperience to encompass experience, a trick that writers and readers count on for both tea and sympathy.

And you know what? It’s darkest before dawn, meaning I can flip a switch and create “an electric room” outside, too. Just like that.

So go ahead. Write a nocturne just after you’ve written an aubade, no matter which you’re familiar with. Opposites attract, and your readers will adjust.

Aubades: Love Poems That Dawn On You

“Poetry doesn’t get enough mainstream attention these days. It’s a mode of engaging with the world, it feels like magic, it requires nothing of you other than a willing ear. It’s also a mode of engagement that is not argumentative, it’s full of surprise, and it’s full of grace.”

Thus spake Jia Tolentino in her video intro to a reading of Tracy K. Smith’s “Solstice,” taken from Life on Mars, the book I’ve been reading (or perhaps that’s been reading me).

The book itself is a rich nougat, much sweeter and more filling than expected. All manner of poetry is going on here, from free verse to bound forms to boundless imagination in the form of postcard missives between people.

As another example of the variety, I give you an aubade entitled, quite simply, “Aubade.” An old French form, an aubade, gets its own 2-minute podcast on Merriam-Webster. Although it looks like you’d pronounce it with a long “a,” it is, in fact, pronounced “oh-BOD.” Without further ado, here is Tracy’s love song to the morning:


by Tracy K. Smith

You wake with a start from some dream
Asking if I want to walk with you around the block.

You go through the things that need doing
Before Monday. Six emails. A presentation on Manet.

No, I don’t want to put on clothes and shoes
And dark glasses and follow the dog and you

Down Smith Street. It’s eight o’clock. The sun
Is toying with those thick clouds and the trees

Shake their heads in the wind. You exhale,

Wheel your feet to the floor, walk around to my side
And let your back end drop down onto the bed.

You resort to the weather. A high today of 78.
But that’s hours aways. And look at the dog

Still passed out cold, twitching in a dream.

When we stop talking, we hear the soft sounds
He makes in his sleep. Not quite barking. More like

Learning to speak. As if he’s in the middle of a scene
Where he must stand before the great dog god

Trying to account for his life.


Mornings can get rather prosaic, as this aubade attests, making it a much easier form for poets to explore than the ghazals we found leaping around in yesterday’s post. And it feels as if the aubade isn’t done speaking, either, when we see, two poems later, Smith’s continuation of the dog theme. For what goes with mornings more than dogs?


“Eggs Norwegian”

by Tracy K. Smith

Give a man a stick, and he’ll hurl it at the sun
For his dog to race toward as it falls. He’ll relish
The snap in those jagged teeth, the rough breath
Sawing in and out through the craggy mouth, the clink
Of tags approaching as the dog canters back. He’ll stoop
To do it again and again, so your walk through grass
Lasts all morning, the dog tired now in the heat,
The stick now just a wet and gnarled nub that doesn’t sail
So much as drop. And when the dog plops to the grass
Like a misbegotten turd, and even you want nothing
More than a plate of eggs at some sidewalk café, the man–
Who, too, by now has dropped even the idea of fetch
Will push you against a tree and ease his leg between
Your legs as his industrious tongue whispers
Convincingly into your mouth.


A stronger poem, I think, but every bit as lovely as morning, the best time of day, the most creative time of day, the time of day I need no alarm clock to greet. Speaking of days, maybe we need to discover the Norwegian word for “egg poems.”

Love, dogs, or eggs, may yours be a good one, no matter how much remains of it.