May 7, 2008

Evaluating the Winters Canon: Poem 8

“Lullaby of a Lover,” by George Gascoigne (c. 1525-1577)

Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest;
And lullaby can I sing to,
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguil'd,
Full many wanton babes have I,
Which must be still'd with lullaby.

First, lullaby my youthful years,
It is now time to go to bed;
For crooked age and hoary hairs
Have won the haven within my head.
With lullaby, then, youth be still,
With lullaby, content thy will,
Since courage quails and comes behind,
Go sleep, and so beguile thy mind.

Next, lullaby my gazing eyes,
Which wonted were to glance apace;
For every glass may now suffice
To show the furrows in my face.
With lullaby, then, wink awhile,
With lullaby, your looks beguile,
Let no fair face nor beauty bright
Entice you eft with vain delight.

And lullaby my wanton will,
Let reason's rule now reign thy thought,
Since all too late I find by skill
How dear I have thy fancies bought.
With lullaby, now take thine ease,
With lullaby, thy doubts appease,
For trust to this, if thou be still,
My body shall obey thy will.

Eke, lullaby my loving boy,
My little Robin, take thy rest;
Since age is cold and nothing coy,
Keep close thy coin, for so is best.
With lullaby, be thou content,
With lullaby, thy lusts relent,
Let others pay which have mo pence,
Thou art too poor for such expense.

Thus lullaby, my youth, mine eyes,
My will, my ware, and all that was!
I can no mo delays devise,
But welcome pain, let pleasure pass.
With lullaby, now take your leave,
With lullaby, your dreams deceive,
And when you rise with waking eye,
Remember Gascoigne's lullaby.

Sing lullaby, as women do,
Wherewith they bring their babes to rest,
And lullaby can I sing too,
As womanly as can the best.
With lullaby they still the child,
And if I be not much beguiled,
Full many wanton babes have I,
Which must be stilled with lullaby.


Yvor Winters did not list this poem among George Gascoigne’s finest work in his earliest published study of Renaissance poetry, his once-famed essay, “The 16th Century Lyric in England” (Poetry, 1939). That essay remains Winters’s most influential piece, though it is seldom given credit for its influence (indeed, it’s hardly mentioned any longer).

Frankly, it’s hard to see how Winters could have missed “Lullaby.” It is a superb poem, a playful, yet serious and classical statement of order and reason in private life.

Winters’s high estimation of the poetry of George Gascoigne is one for which he took a lot of heat in his lifetime. But despite the slumbering obscurity from Winters could not awake Gascoigne, it can hardly be said that Winters was wrong. This is a great poem, one of several great or near-great poems Gascoigne composed. Winters often tried to understand why Gascoigne’s art attracts so few. He believed early English Romanticism, which quickly gained wide influence some 150 years after Gascoigne wrote, was to blame, in great part, as he said when discussing Charles Churchill (another great poet unrecognized as such, whom I have discussed a couple times on this blog) in his first book Primitivism and Decadence:

... Charles Churchill, like Gascoigne at an earlier period and like [Samuel] Johnson in his own, was a great master obscured by history, that is, by the mummification, for purposes of immortal exhibition, of a current fashion -— Gray and Collins, slighter poets in spite of all their virtues, were of the party that produced the style of the next century and they have come to be regarded, for this reason, as the best poets of their period.

The theories of Romanticism, in Winters’s view, took English poetry down a different road than the classical and that circumstance has obscured Gascoigne’s greatness. No critic has re-assessed Gascoigne from Winters’s point of view (we’ll come back to that lamentable situation later).

Winters finally discussed “Lullaby of a Lover” in print 28 years later, in his revision and expansion of the “16th Century Lyric” essay, which became the first chapter of his last book, Forms of Discovery (1967). It seems that his judgment of the poem had risen to considerable heights between 1939 and 1967.

Some critics have guessed that the poem is the most frequently discussed in Gascoigne’s body of work. But critical and popular discussion has concerned mostly the fifth stanza, in which the speaker playfully discusses singing a lullaby to his penis. This figure has amazed, or rather titillated, readers and critics alike down the years. But is this some big deal? Hardly. It’s a typical rhetorical device, called synecdoche. That it concerns the speaker’s precious “member” is not all that remarkable, except that it’s rather unusual for our sexually buttoned-up culture. Robert Pinsky recently told a great story about Yvor Winters and this stanza on After being read the fifth stanza in the interview, Pinsky commented:

[The poem is] Gascoigne's "Lullaby of a Lover" and it's one of my 3.5's [poems he thinks are very good, I suppose]. He puts to sleep his eyes and then his will and then his fancy, one stanza for each, and in the last stanza, this one, he puts to sleep his penis and says, Now I'm too old: "Let others pay which hath mo pence."

I remember thirty years ago, Yvor Winters reading that poem to me and chuckling very hard while telling me that Sir Arthur Quiller Couch in the Oxford Book of English Verse omitted that stanza. (Laughter.) I also remember Winters saying that he had shown the stanza to Virgil Keble Whittaker, the chairman of the Stanford English Department at the time and a sixteenth-century scholar. Winters said, "Ho-ho. Whittaker had no idea what this stanza was about. Ho-ho-ho." The poem could be called an example of late sixteenth-century phallocentricism in a very charming and appropriately grave mode.

Piquant story. But that’s a big word that is decidedly pretentious here. There’s nothing phallocentric about the word or the treatment of the idea or the poem as a whole. Discussing one’s penis in Gascoigne’s way is a playfully rhetorical device that, in this case, expresses a common fear among men, the loss of sexual potency and desire. More is said about still sophomoric critics and readers getting all worked about the figure than that Gascoigne wrote it.

Though critics have mentioned “Lullaby” here and there, few have analyzed or discussed it in detail. No Wintersian has bothered with it at all, at least that I know of, even though Gascoigne’s poetry is one of those hard cases that I think would have drawn the attention of some Wintersian. It seems that someone should have believed that Winters’s position on Gascoigne was in need of full or partial justification -- or at least another look.

Academic critic Richard Panofsky, in the Critical Survey of Poetry (1992), wrote briefly of the poem. He, like others, seems to think it has received the most attention in Gascoigne’s body of work, paltry as that attention has sadly been. He thinks as well that it shows Gascoigne at his best. I agree that it is great, but it is not the best (as we shall soon see). Panofsky notices that the poem itself constitutes the lullaby by which the speaker endeavors to still and control the youthful urges that linger on in old age. That rhetorical shift is wonderfully expressive. Panofsky believes, nonetheless, that the lullaby is a “frail distraction” from desires and capabilities of youth. This phrase betrays that Panofsky is reading his own feelings into the poem, in my judgment. There’s little hint that Gascoigne considers his lullaby a “frail” answer to his troubles.

By the way, John Fraser does include “Lullaby of a Lover” in his New Book of English Verse.


The poem is written in a regular iambic tetrameter rhyming in an uncommon eight-line stanza, ababccdd. The two couplets that form the final quatrain of each stanza are composed with consummate mastery. Each stanza’s first couplet, lines 5 and 6 in each, pick up noticeable speed over each ope3ning quatrain as each stanza reaches its culmination. This is a striking and expressive verse form. Poets should have put it to more uses than they have. Perhaps this blog will help renew interest in the strong structure it provides.

The speaker of the poem begins expertly by grabbing our attention, making us want to know what he is going to compare to mother’s singing a lullaby to a restless baby. Our interest in this leads us into the theme with great skill. The playfulness of the opening also prepares us for the witty discourse to come.

In stanza 2, the speaker states his purpose to quiet his youthful years. It’s a strange rhetorical device, Gascoigne’s use of personification throughout the poem. The speaker writes as though the years themselves are bawling in the cradle as he tries a song to quiet them. “Courage quails” strikes me as a forceful phrase that embodies a moving theme. But despite the speaker’s fears, we sense strongly at this point that the speaker, if not the poet, is trying to adjust himself to his circumstances rationally, which is the most profound and important work of the human psyche -- and the essence of stoicism as well.

Stanza 3 turns to quelling the speaker’s memories of his youthful good looks, and by extension of all the trappings of beauty. How much we rely on our looks. How important they are to us in every stage of life. Coming to this is a rational step in the argument the poet is making. The poet shows that he wants to be free of illusions. Again, he employs the striking device of personification, as though he sings to the eyes to quiet them, those eyes crying like babes over passing time, which is revealed in the furrows etched into the face. These are complex figures pregnant with meaning and emotion.

In stanza 4 comes the imperative turn: let reasons rule. The speaker gives himself and us a call to a life of reason. Reason ought to reign over thought, over fancies, over will. In singing this to the will, the speaker is able to quiet its crying, and the body shall obey the will as directed and controlled by reason. In such ways, the stanza gathers together complex and powerful ideas that form the foundation of the classical life.

Stanza 5 moves boldly on to sexuality, which will be brought under control as well. The whole stanza stands as a powerful expression of the classical frame of mind, as mischievous and witty as it is. The speaker endeavors to quiet his bawling penis, which stands in for the sexual essence, our sexual nature. After the lullaby, the lusts the penis gives rise to will relent.

The conclusion in stanza 6 mentions pains, which brings something new to the poem. The speaker strives to let pleasures go. But are there no compensating pleasures in loss of age and beauty? This idea about pain goes a bit too far, in my judgment, the only flaw in the poem.

The final lines show how deeply the classicist endeavors to look to language and song, to the province of true art, to properly adjust his mind and will and emotions to the conditions of loss. David Hume wrote, not all that long after Gascoigne, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Gascoigne’s poem is one answer to such cynical sentiments. It trusts that granting rule to reason will be effective and that art can be enlisted on behalf of reason. With all this in mind, is it any wonder that Yvor Winters came to judge this poem so highly?

Finally, I should point out that the very word and concept of “lullaby” has myriad connotations in our culture. Thousands upon thousands are the subtly different uses of the word and in thousands of subtly different contexts. The very act of writing of singing a lullaby to still the soul electrifies my mind with reflections, as it should. Gascoigne’s great poem should play a much larger role in the cultural meaning of this word and the concept behind it.


The poem makes an exquisite and profoundly moving classical statement of commitment to reason and to the proper adjustment of the emotions. Though it is stirring and offers deep pleasures in its rhetorical play and the skillful composition of its verse, “Lullaby” induces a deep melancholy in me. It makes me deeply mindful of the passing of time, the wasting away of life, as movingly given form in the loss of sexual pleasures. Yet this poem has never been an important one in my life, even though every time I have read it I have been struck by the virtuosity of Gascoigne’s poetic expression and his superb thematic control and depth. Now that I have studied it again, I suspect that it might stay with me longer and more solidly.

All comments welcome.

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