Four in the Morning
A CultureMap®
by Griffin Hanna
Published on 12/1/14

Hardly anyone, birds and workers on the graveyard shift aside, is awake at four in the morning, the silent, still time when dew descends and people slumber. With a nod to the poet-artist Rives, who woke us up to the four a.m. meme in his TED talk, we look at what stirs at this time—the broken hearts and sinister plots—and why, out of 24 hours in the day, this one is the darkest.

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Dawn Chorus
to  Four a.m. in Song

“Well it’s four in the morning by the sound of the birds,” croons folksinger Bob Dylan in “Under Your Spell,” from the album Knocked Out Loaded (1986). But though Dylan does seem to know his birdsong (in “Jokerman” evoking “the nightingale tune,” and in “One More Cup of Coffee” lamenting, “Your voice is like a meadowlark / But your heart is like an ocean / Mysterious and dark”), he is no ornithologist hoping to glimpse a rare crepuscular bird. Nor has he risen to hear the dawn chorus—the mingled, insistent tones of avian songs at daybreak. No, Dylan is up brooding over lost love.

Dylan’s nasal rasp couldn’t be more different from the fluting of songbirds. The human voice box sits on the trachea, a single tube sending air over the vocal membranes; a bird’s voice box is set at the intersection of two bronchial tubes, allowing it to produce two separate notes at once. And Dylan’s four a.m. lament concerns the end of a love affair. Male birds, conversely, sing at love’s beginning, courting their sweethearts with complex melodies when not broadcasting territorial challenges from high in the timber to any rivals who dare confront them.

Dawn Chorus
to  William Shakespeare  (1564–1616 | English playwright)

After the two teenagers in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet consummate their secret marriage, Juliet tries to convince Romeo that the bird they hear in the distance is a nocturnal nightingale, and that Romeo can stay longer in the safety of darkness. But he is quick to proclaim the songbird a lark, “the herald of the morn.” This heartbreakingly brief dialogue occurs during their last speaking moments together before they end up dead in each other’s arms.

Was it the nightingale or the lark? If the former, the lovers might have lain awhile, listening to the bird’s serenades—a repertoire of up to 300 love songs. But a skylark’s tune might have been more useful to Romeo, a lover on the run: This bird sings heartily while fleeing a predator, a feat that advertises its strength and good health and suggests it may not be easy prey. Either species could have been active at four a.m. when, according to the first quarto (the play’s first printed version), Juliet fakes her death. The second quarto, the version used today, has the time as three a.m., when only the nightingale would be singing, and the sleeping skylark would brook no defense.

Candle Wasters
to  William Shakespeare  (1564–1616 | English playwright)

For the students awake at four a.m., cramming their minds with mathematical mysteries or geologic anomalies or psychological inquiries, there’s not much comfort; their exams likely will come too soon and prove too difficult. But when the subject turns to William Shakespeare, students should put down their books and heed the Elizabethan bard’s words, spoken by Leonato in Much Ado About Nothing: “Patch grief with proverbs; make misfortune drunk / With candle-wasters.” This may be the first recorded usage of the term candle wasters, a disdainful description of people who stay up late reading. Shakespeare’s line mocks the uselessness of this endeavor: The candle waster’s pursuit is of flickering value, akin to the offer of an axiom to a mourner.

The preferred candles in Shakespeare’s day were made from beeswax, which burns with a bright light and a pleasant smell. Beeswax was expensive, however, so many people used tallow, a cheaper alternative made from animal fat that flames with a sickly incandescence and puffs out rotten odors. By that inferior light, it’s clear why Shakespeare and so many candle-wasting artists during and after his time might have considered four a.m. the bleakest, most forlorn and hopeless of hours.

Candle Wasters
to  Four a.m. in Song

Songwriters are particularly productive candle wasters, and the wee hours have inspired numerous reflections on failed romances. In “Still Crazy After All These Years” (1975), after running into an old lover Paul Simon bewails, “Four in the morning / Crapped out, yawning / Longing my life away.” Elton John’s contribution, “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” (1975), includes a spirited command—“It’s four o’clock in the morning / Dammit, listen to me good”—as a prelude to breaking a marriage engagement.

On a more poignant note, the narrator of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” (1971) chooses that fitful hour to compose a letter to an old friend who had slept with his wife: “Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes / I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” In “Sara” (1976), Bob Dylan recalls “staying up for days in the Chelsea Hotel / Writing ‘Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands’ for you,” during an earlier nocturnal songwriting session. Jesse Colin Young of the Youngbloods has perhaps the most pathetic time of it, however, in his “Four in the Morning” (1964), mourning the loss of his “baby” and “watching a cockroach crawling in an old bean can.”

Candle Wasters
to  The Godfather  (Francis Ford Coppola (dir.) | film | 1972)

In a sinister scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s Mafia family epic The Godfather, a group of men are sitting around a table. The third draft of the screenplay, by Coppola and the novel’s author, Mario Puzo, describes the setting succinctly: “It is four in the morning; there is evidence of many cups of coffee and many snacks”—a comically colorless account, considering the situation. No cadre of students cramming for an exam, these candle wasters are the Corleone family, plotting to snuff a rival.

Chief among the nighttime killers is Michael Corleone, played by Al Pacino in the role that made him a star. Pacino, known for his method acting, met with gangsters to prepare for the role, but for this particular scene, his preparation was more incidental. When Pacino was cast as Michael, he was a nobody. Furthermore, his screen test had gone badly, and had it not been for Coppola’s insistence, the studio might not have chosen him. With this weighing on his mind, Pacino would frequently awaken at four a.m. and, unable to fall back asleep, go into his kitchen and reflect on his character. It was, as Michael Corleone surely knew, the perfect time for brooding.

William Shakespeare  (1564–1616 | English playwright)
to  The Godfather  (Francis Ford Coppola (dir.) | film | 1972)

Four in the morning—a common meme in songs, movies and literature, indicating the loneliest and darkest hour—seems a particularly cruel time to kill somebody. After all, the coffee isn’t even brewed. Nevertheless, it is the hour appointed by William Shakespeare, perhaps the first published proponent of the four o’clock murder. In Measure for Measure, the villain Angelo decides to have Claudio beheaded at “four of the clock.” In Richard III, Lord Stanley wakes Lord Hastings during this “tott’ring state” to inform him of the impending executions of their enemies.

If the bard starts the trend, Francis Ford Coppola keeps it alive when the Corleone mob family whacks two gangsters on the fourth stroke in his classic film The Godfather. Corleone enforcer Luca Brasi goes first, garroted at a meeting with rival Bruno Tattaglia; later, another Corleone assassin announces, “We hit Bruno Tattaglia at four o’clock this morning.” Even Edgar Allan Poe chose that hour as the time his murderer finishes the job in the story “The Tell-Tale Heart.” And the predawn death isn’t found only in fiction: In Iran executions are performed before the day’s first call to prayer, in the dim light of four in the morning.