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From A Poet’s Glossary: Lullaby

Written by

Edward Hirsch

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August 12, 2014


Poetic Terms/Forms
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In April 2014 A Poet’s Glossary by Academy Chancellor Edward Hirsch was published. As Hirsch writes in the preface, “this book—one person’s work, a poet’s glossary—has grown, as if naturally, out of my lifelong interest in poetry, my curiosity about its vocabulary, its forms and genres, its histories and traditions, its classical, romantic, and modern movements, its various outlying groups, its small devices and large mysteries—how it works.” Each week we will feature a term and its definition from Hirsch’s new book. 

lullaby: A bedtime song or chant to put a child to sleep. Lullabies typically begin “Hush-a-bye baby, on the tree top,” or “Rock-a-bye, baby,” or “Sleep, my child,” or “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.” The English term lullaby may derive from the sounds lu lu or la la, a sound that mothers and nurses make to calm babies, and by by or bye bye, another lulling sound or else a good-night term. The oldest lullaby to survive may be the lullaby of Roman nurses recorded in a scholium on Persius: “Lalla, Lalla, Lalla, / aut dormi, aut lacte” (Lullaby, Lullaby, Lullaby, / either go to sleep or suckle). As ancient folk poems, lullabies range from meaningless jingles to semi-ballads. They are closely related to nursery rhymes. Rodrigo Caro called these soothing melodies, which are found all over the world, the “reverend mothers of all songs.” Federico García Lorca noted that “Spain uses its very saddest melodies and most melancholy texts to darken the first sleep of her children” and concluded: “The European cradle song tries only to put the child to sleep, not, as the Spanish one, to wound his sensibility at the same time” (“On Lullabies,” 1928). Lorca reminds us that cradle songs were invented by women desperate to put their children to sleep. The women soothe their children by expressing their own weariness. The poems thus have a double purpose. He found the most ardent lullaby sung in Béjar and said, “This one would ring like a gold coin if we dropped it on the rocky earth.” It begins:

Sleep, little boy,
sleep, for I am watching you.
God, give you much luck
in this lying world.

Joseph Brodsky’s poignant late poem to his infant daughter, “Lullaby” (“Birth I gave you in a desert”) echoes one of W. H. Auden’s most beautiful early lyrics, “Lullaby” (“Lay your sleeping head, my love”).  Reetika Vazirani (1962–2003) wrote a startling and inconsolable three-line poem called “Lullaby” (2002), which wounds:

I would not sing you to sleep.
I would press my lips to your ear
and hope the terror in my heart stirs you.


Excerpted from A Poet’s Glossary by Edward Hirsch. Copyright © 2014 by Edward Hirsch. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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Read a selection of terms from Edward Hirsch's A Poet's Glossary (Harc...