The aubade is a dawn song expressing the regret of lovers parting at daybreak. The earliest European examples date from the end of the 12th century (the Provenc{cedil}al and German equivalents are alba and Tagelied). Some scholars believe that the aubade, which has no fixed metrical form, grew out of the cry of the medieval watchman, who announced from his tower the passing of night and return of the day. Whatever its origin, I've always been struck by the odd universality of the form, by the occurrence of the dawn song in nearly all early poetries. Its poignancy crosses cultures.

Chaucer gives a splendid example in Book Three of Troilus and Criseyde. It begins when Criseyde hears the cock crow and then continues for 14 additional stanzas:

"Myn hertes lyf, my trist and my plesaunce,

That I was born, allas! what me is wo,

That day of us mot make disseveraunce!

For tyme it is to ryse and hennes go,

Or eeles I am lost for evermo!

O night, allas! why niltow over us hove,

As longe as whanne Almena lay by Jove?"

The aubade recalls the joy, the communion, of two lovers joined together in original darkness. It remembers the ecstasy of union. But it also describes a leavetaking at dawn, and with that parting comes the dawning of individual consciousness; the separated or daylit mind bears the grief or burden of longing for what has been lost. In this way, the aubade is one of the quintessential forms of lyric.

The characteristic aubade flows from the darkness of the hour before dawn to the brightness of the hour afterward. It moves from silence to speech, from the song of the nightingale to the song of the lark, from the rapture of communion to the burden of isolation, and the poem itself becomes a conscious recognition of our separateness. This is made brilliantly evident in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," act III, scene v, 1-36, which concludes with Romeo's heartfelt cry, "More light and light -- more dark and dark our woes!" As Allen Grossman puts it in his insightful "Summa Lyrica": "The direction of lyric is irreversible. It flows from Eden to history."

The greatest dawn poem in recent memory is Philip Larkin's last poem, "Aubade," which is a terrifying confrontation with "Unresting death, a whole day nearer now." There is no beloved in Larkin's masterpiece, just the terror of darkness and the unremitting burden of facing oblivion.

The lyric movement of the aubade continues to inspire poets. There's a keen 14-liner, for example, in Kevin Young's jaunty and personal new book of poems, Jelly Roll: A Blues. Here the aubade takes on a contemporary feeling, a low-down, vernacular, bluesy tone, but its original theme -- two lovers parting at sunrise -- is still very much in play:

Aubade There is little else

I love: the small

of yr back, your thick

bottom

lip stuck out.

Your moue makes

me wheeze & want.

Wake. I am like

that big Bessie,

a red cow's plea --

milk me, baby.

Will you stay?

Or rise, as sun

Does, & make us day?

(The stanza from "Troilus and Criseyde" can be found in Chaucer's Complete Works, edited from numerous manuscripts by Walter W. Skeat. Oxford University Press. Kevin Young's "Aubade" appears in his collection "Jelly Roll: A Blues." Alfred A. Knopf. Copyright © 2003 by Kevin Young.)