W. H. Auden
FOR THE TIME BEING
A Christmas Oratorio
W. H. Auden's remarkable long poem FOR THE TIME BEING: A Christmas Oratorio was written during the dark times of World War II. The poem is about 1500 lines long, or 52 pages. (For comparison: Shakespeare's Macbeth is about 2100 lines long.) Unfortunately, the entire poem is under copyright and not available online. Here is a book containing the poem:
|... for a small band of faithful readers ... W. H. Auden's "For the Time Being," remains one of the most powerful expressions of the meaning of Christmas in the 20th century. With its metaphysical musings and theological underpinnings, the poem will never replace "The Night Before Christmas" or the seasonal pageant at Radio City Music Hall. But Auden's is a Christmas that can glimpse redemption even in the trivialization of Christmas, in the frantic shopping, distracted gaiety and unsuccessful attempts, as he says, to love all of our relatives. This is a Christmas for the day after Christmas. This is a Christmas for grown-ups.|
|[Auden's] concern in the poem is not simply to speak of the Nativity events but rather to draw out their incarnational impact upon the mundane world of the everyday. And what could be more boring, more deadeningly mundane, than the cabin-fever periods of February? Only a late-winter reading allows access to the deeper layers of meaning in the poem, because for Auden Christmas is ... an annual reminder that God has acted and is acting “to redeem from insignificance” the monotonous sludge of our everyday routines.|
|Written in 1942 when the world was at war, Auden's Oratorio is a parable that merges the Biblical and the contemporary with a result that is simultaneously audacious and poetic.|
Narrator Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes --
Some have got broken -- and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week --
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted -- quite unsuccessfully --
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid's geometry
And Newton's mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
"Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake."
They will come, all right, don't worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God's Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph. IV
Chorus He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures. He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years. He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy. -- W. H. Auden
|Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions... Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces. Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are 20 years old... Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish... The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.|
If the muscle can feel repugnance, there is still a false move to be made;|
If the mind can imagine tomorrow, there is still a defeat to remember;
As long as the self can say "I," it is impossible not to rebel;
As long as there is an accidental virtue, there is a necessary vice:
And the garden cannot exist, the miracle cannot occur.
For the garden is the only place there is, but you will not find it
Until you have looked for it everywhere and found nowhere that is not a desert;
The miracle is the only thing that happens, but to you it will not be apparent,
Until all events have been studied and nothing happens that you cannot explain;
And life is the destiny you are bound to refuse until you have consented to die.
Therefore, see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking:
Simeon: And because of His visitation, we may no|
longer desire God as if He were lacking: our
redemption is no longer a question of pursuit
but of surrender to Him who is always and
everywhere present. Therefore at every moment
we pray that, following Him, we may depart from
our anxiety into His peace. Chorus: Its errors forgiven, may our Vision come home.
Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood|
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood. Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own? The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss. We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.