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.
For The Time Being by W. H. Auden
It’s New Year’s eve and all over the world will be celebrations welcoming 2019. Generally I let the poetry speak first and then follow with any commentary. I’ve mixed things up today as the poetry below by Auden is not easy stuff and I thought a little explanation was in order.
Auden wrote For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratario during the darkest days of World War II. It is a remarkable piece of writing, a retelling and interpretation of the Christmas story that is meant to be savored in some ways well after the marketing hype of Christmas has died down and the serious business of living in a new year has begun. I will offer up a couple of pieces of the oratario in the next week along with a link to a digital version if you care to read the entire poem. This is one of those poems that can’t be absorbed in one reading, there is too much to think about, too much dense material to wade through.
None of us truly understand another’s spiritual beliefs. Auden’s poetry is filled with sign posts of his beliefs, his Anglican faith a center in his life. Auden was a gay man at a time when you could still go to prison in England for homosexuality and the Anglican church viewed homosexuality as deviant and wicked. Auden’s poetry is filled with discordance that may have its roots in the obstacles of aligning his strong sense of being a good citizen of the world and the isolation that being different can fester in Christianity. The greatest hypocrisy that can be at the core of Christianity, when it is used as a weapon to justify the actions of discrimination.
The sense I get in reading Auden is that he and I share something in common in our relationship with the Church; it is the foundation for our moral code and at the same time a source of discomfort in attempting to reconcile the entirety of Christianity’s contradictions with our own. Auden was a bundle of contradictions. He was a moralist who drank heavily, punctual but in a continual state of dishelvement, a homosexual who never appeared to be fully at ease with his sexuality and in many ways a subversive, avant garde writer who choose to write in traditional forms.
What is remarkable about the Oratorio is how succinctly he gets to the contradictions that are the holidays for so many people. It is a time of excitement, hope, love and joy for the fortunate who feel those uplifting sentiments in their lives. For many others it is a time of loneliness, isolation and unhappiness. Auden impecably sews together both realities in his version of the Christmas story. For The Time Being is not light reading. But if you choose to serve yourself up more intellectually challenging fair in digesting your holiday experience, I recommend finding a couple of hours sometime in the new year and sit down and read it. In Auden’s work you my find a companion to help you on your way. As he says below, “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” In Auden’s version of the Christmas story some of us may more clearly see ourselves then the sanitized versions of Christmas that have surrounded us for the past weeks.
For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
by W. H. Auden
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…
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.
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.