Waiting on the Word: Auden and the Aftermath of Christmas

Editor’s Note: Over the last several weeks, we have enjoyed several insightful interactions with Advent and Christmas poetry taken from Malcom Guite’s anthology Waiting on the Word. As our poetry symposium concludes, we offer thoughts inspired by W. H. Auden’s For the Time Being, a final poem that moves us through and past that experience of waiting to consider what happens when the waiting is over.


 

For the Time Being  W. H. Auden

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. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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. . . . [1]

The celebration of Christmas creates a certain kind of tension: on the one hand, Christians celebrate the holiday as the miraculous entrance of God into human form. On the other hand, life goes on, and it goes on with apparently little lasting notice of Christmas’s grand historical and salvific claims. We put away our Christmas trees and resume our briefly interrupted lives in the solidly physical ‘moderate Aristotelian city’ that operates under the laws of Euclid and Newton. Has anything really changed?

When he returned in the early 1940s to the Christian faith of his youth, Auden was convinced that Christ’s birth had indeed effected universal, permanent change in the world, and his poem, For the Time Being, sets out to explore how God does indeed fundamentally change the world while so much of history can apparently remain unaware of and unaffected by that change. Though Auden was not writing a concert piece quite like Handel’s oratorio The Messiah, he nonetheless subtitled For the Time Being, a ‘Christmas Oratorio’, when the poem first saw publication in 1944, and although he began writing the poem with the idea that his occasional collaborator Benjamin Britten would set the text to music, he abandoned this notion by the time of the poem’s publication. [2] The poem’s final form comprises nine sections and roughly fifteen hundred lines, and it includes parts for all of the major characters from the Scriptural nativity accounts: Mary, Joseph, Gabriel, Herod, Caesar, Simeon, the angels, the shepherds and the wise men all have roles, as do a Narrator and various choral groupings that exist outside the Scriptural accounts that allow Auden to connect more explicitly the events of the past with the life of the present.

Like so many works of art that portray biblical events, For the Time Being seeks to bring its subject into contemporary time by dressing its characters in modern robes; here, many of Auden’s characters seem to exist in a world that flits back and forth between reminding us of the first century but also the twentieth century. As Auden so often does, he employs a wide variety of poetic registers and forms while he brings in references and ideas from an abundance of literary, theological, and historical sources. However, for our purposes I want to focus on only two elements of the poem that both suggest something about the permanent impact of the events of the Christmas story: First, the oratorio’s portrayal of two opposing saviours who invite acceptance of their claims in very different ways. Second, the redefinitions of reality afforded by the advent of the Christ child.

Auden portrays humanity in the oratorio as fallen and divided on both internal and external levels. The second section of the poem, ‘Annunciation’, begins not with the words of Mary or Gabriel but with those of the Four Faculties—Intuition, Feeling, Sensation, and Thought—who watch over Man’s life and ‘manage / His fallen estate’ (10). In reality, the very existence of these four discrete faculties corresponds to that same fallen state, for those four ‘were / Once but one, / Before his act of / Rebellion’ (10-11). Thus, fallen man exists in a state of inner division and alienation from his true nature, and the multiple faculties show no awareness of or desire for any means that might overcome such divisions, which after all provide the source of their existence. But humanity also suffers from an external alienation from the reality of the surrounding world.

From one perspective, several of Auden’s characters can speak of mankind’s banishment from the unfallen garden of his origin; the four faculties, for instance, speak together of ‘that hidden / Garden whose entrance / To him is forbidden’ (12). In a more metaphysical register, however, the Narrator’s first speech in the opening section, ‘Advent’, speaks of a sudden, horrifying realisation of the ‘Void’, which he also calls ‘the Abomination’ and the ‘wrath of God’ (7). We could call this Void the absence of God, but a person like one for whom the Narrator speaks in this opening section, a person who typically understands the ‘natural world’ as a world where ‘The occupation of space is the real and final fact / And time runs around itself in an obedient circle’ (5), seems rather to think of the Void as a horrifying presence: the presence of a nothingness ‘Where time never moves and nothing can ever happen’ (7). This naturalistic perspective problematically issues forth in a catastrophic impersonality that devastates any fruitful understanding of human identity: ‘our true existence / Is decided by no one and has no importance to love’.

The question of how or whether this state can be remedied occupies a good deal of the oratorio’s attention, and Auden portrays two potential saviours: Caesar (and to a lesser extent Herod), who can stand for any worldly attempts to effect salvation through immanent political or social means, and the Christ child. Caesar enters in the poem’s fourth part, ‘The Summons’, and his introduction follows the wise men’s confessional, seeking pursuit of the guiding star; the magi ‘know for certain’ that they ‘are three old sinners’, and they recognize that they are seeking ‘how to be human now’ (28). In contrast, the Narrator’s voice calls for attention to Caesar’s impending announcement to the ‘Just Society’ that flourishes under the ‘sunlight of His calm’ (29). His loud proclamation commands the census which compels Joseph and Mary’s trip to Bethlehem, but in Auden’s diction the act of counting has become the more modern command to ‘register… with the police’ under the threat of ‘confiscation of goods and loss of civil rights’ for any failure to comply.

The Narrator then orders a chorus of praise for this one who ‘overcame implacable Necessity / By His endurance and by His skill has subdued the / Welter of Fortune’. The ensuing chorus praises Caesar for his conquest of the ‘Seven Kingdoms’ of Abstract Idea, Natural Cause, Infinite Number, Credit Exchange, Inorganic Giants, Organic Dwarfs, and Popular Soul. Each of these conquests in its own way has brought about a depersonalization and abstraction in humanity’s understanding of the world as well as an apparently increased mastery of that world. Conquering the Kingdom of Abstract Idea, for instance, has turned ‘Tom, Dick and Harry’ into ‘S’s with P’s’ (Subjects with Predicates), while conquering the Kingdom of Organic Dwarfs has enabled the conquest of disease, pain, and physical weakness: ‘When we feel like sheep, They make us lions; / When we feel like geldings, They make us stallions; / Spirit is no longer under Flesh, but on top’ (32). The chorus repeatedly trumpets these conquests as conclusive evidence that God must be with Caesar, but we can realize that these same conquests have brought us close to the conditions that have also placed humanity in that horrified isolation with the Void of the poem’s early lines; the conquest of the Abstract Idea, after all, has given us belief in ‘one unconditioned ground of Being’ instead of intimations of spiritual presences in the world (30).

In one of the oratorio’s major turning points, the Narrator follows this chorus in praise of Caesar, the worldly saviour, with the confession that we do not always quite believe in the power of those conquests that we proclaim; sometime when we are alone or have not managed to distract ourselves with busyness, whether ‘In our bath, or the subway, or the middle of the night’, we will admit that we have lied to ourselves, that ‘We know very well we are not unlucky but evil’ (33).

This recognition leads not to a call for registration with the police but for contrition and the prayer that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven may come, not in our present / And not in our future, but in the Fullness of Time’. A new chorale thus sounds forth, one humbly offered with petitions to ‘Our Father’ rather than praise to the self-glorifying Caesar, and this chorale sets up the angelic announcement of the birth of the second potential saviour in the poem’s next part, ‘The Vision of the Shepherds’. Very significantly for the contrast with Caesar, this ‘Child’ announced by the angels does not speak for himself; indeed, as Alan Jacobs notes, we can generally say of the poem as a whole that Christ ‘does not, in the strict sense’ appear in the poem at all. [3] But that absence, or rather that indirect presence, proves especially important in delineating the Child’s difference from Caesar. This child, ‘given’ rather than grabbed through the conquest of some kingdom, proclaims the ‘ingression of Love’ (37), which in turn ‘Declares that the old / Authoritarian / Constraint is replaced / By His Covenant’ (38-39). This new covenant can also lead to a new city, an image of fruitful union rather than isolation, but this city will vitally be ‘based / On love and consent / Suggested to men, / All, all, all of them’ (39).

Note that distinction between suggestion and compulsion: for Auden, that quiet insistence on a peaceful persuasion marks out one of the vital differences between human and divine efforts towards salvation.

The characters of Caesar and Herod make clear that Auden believes those who attempt to impose an earthly salvation on their subjects will not hesitate to compel and destroy in the name of a presumed greater good. As Herod dispassionately laments before he issues the order to kill the newly born male infants, ‘Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers’ (57-58).

Auden’s Christ child, however, speaks and persuades only in a silent act of weakness which will very much leave open the possibility of the hearer avoiding or ignoring that act’s significance. Nonetheless, that same silent act does summon ‘All, all, all’ hearers to Bethlehem, and its very weakness does have the power to completely transform the hearer’s understanding of the world—and the perceived threat of the Void of Being. In the words of the chorus, the appearance of this child demonstrates that ‘The Father Abyss / Is affectionate / To all Its creatures’ (39). The horrifying Void has been re-identified and re-personalised as infinite, fatherly Love through this event. Simeon, whose prose meditations in the seventh section offer the most extensive and explicit theological reflections in the oratorio, makes the same point in these words: ‘But here and now the Word which is implicit in the Beginning and in the End is become immediately explicit, and that which hitherto we could only passively fear as the incomprehensible I AM, henceforth we may actively love with comprehension that THOU ART’ (50).

 

In this respect, both in his stress on God’s peaceful persuasion and on the ontological implications of the attractive, communicative manifestation of love in the Incarnation, Auden sounds a note very similar to that in the work of theologians like Hans Urs von Balthasar or David Bentley Hart. But Auden’s distinctive register in For the Time Being remains his articulation of how this realisation of Love in the Nativity combats and transforms the impersonal abstractions of Time and Space.

In the final lines of the scene at the manger, the shepherds and wise men together praise the ‘Living Love’ that has replaced their ‘phantasy’ and allowed them to redefine Space as ‘the Whom our loves are needed by’ and Time as ‘our choice of How to love and Why’ (46).

Though those characters come to this realisation in the same historical moment as the event of the Incarnation itself, Auden suggests that those same redefinitions and reorientations can apply to the present moment with the same power. Therefore, when the Narrator’s final speech takes us through the aftermath of Christmas in the lines I quoted at the beginning—the packing up, the throwing away, the return to normal time, the inevitable looking ahead to what is next, and the suspicion that nothing has changed for the better—we can discern a definitive change effected by the birth of the Christ child. As Auden rightly recognises, such discernment does not imply a newfound ease of life; rather, for those ‘who have seen / The Child… / The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all’ (64). We who live between the first and second advents live during the silent ‘noon’: the ‘happy morning is over, / the night of agony still to come’, and ‘the Spirit must practise his scales of rejoicing / Without even a hostile audience’ (65).

Surely part of the difficulty ‘of the time being’ lies in the challenge of waiting for the fulfilment of Time, but for Auden the waiting after Christmas differs completely from the waiting before Christmas. In a confidence inspired by the Love manifest in the birth of the Child, Auden affirms with his Simeon that ‘we are bold to say that we have seen our salvation’ (50).

 


[1] W. H. Auden, For the Time Being, ed. Alan Jacobs (1944; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013), 63-64. All subsequent quotations from the poem refer in-text to the page numbers of this edition.
[2] Edward Mendelson, Later Auden (London: Faber and Faber, 1999), 179-180.
[3] Alan Jacobs, introduction to For the Time Being, by W. H. Auden, xx.

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