This year, I took it upon myself to make overdue first acquaintance with the poetry of W. H. Auden. Having had the wind knocked out of me by T. S. Eliot in high school, I anticipated a similar encounter with the at once very weird and very great. I was left disappointed on neither front (though I still find Eliot the greater poet).
The epic Christmas prose-poetry oratorio “For the Time Being” stands out as perhaps the chief among Auden’s works. I still don’t claim to understand it all and still reserve judgement on whether certain sections of it actually mean anything in particular, as one sometimes does even with the best poets of his era. Nevertheless, at regular intervals it breaks forth with a profoundly beautiful light on the Christmas story, as told through the eyes of its players: Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, Simeon, even Herod the King and his soldiers. The ancient and the modern are strangely commingled as the voices take turns with a Chorus offering their two cents on what exactly this all means.
If I had to pick a favorite passage, perhaps it would be The Annunciation, as Gabriel and Mary together approach the point of Logos incarnated, myth actualized, “no longer a pretend but true.” Gabriel concludes:
Since Adam, being free to choose,
Chose to imagine he was free
To choose his own necessity,
Lost in his freedom, Man pursues
The shadow of his images:
Today the Unknown seeks the known;
What I am willed to ask, your own
Will has to answer; child, it lies
Within your power of choosing to
Conceive the Child who chooses you.
The poem then moves into a call-and-response section between a soloist and a chorus, as the weary world slowly stirs awake and begins to rejoice. “Let even the great rejoice,” it commands, the “rich and the lovely” whose arrogance for a brief moment has been arrested, “till their own reflection came between” again. “Let even the small rejoice,” it commands, the dazed downcast and crushed under soldier’s booted heel, lifting their heads to catch the distant triumph song that even now steals on the ear. “Let even the young rejoice,” it commands, the lovers betrayed, the ones who have wept and clawed their pillow in the night. “Let even the old rejoice,” it commands, “the Bleak and the Dim” forgotten in the old folks’ home as the Hallmark channel flickers through its dismal catalogue on the TV opposite. For the conqueror is come, the dragon’s Demolisher, “singing and dancing.”
Soon, Simeon lends his aid in prose, touching what his eyes cannot see, rejoicing that “the incomprehensible I AM” has now come to us as that which we “may actively love with comprehension that THOU ART.” So we have beheld his glory, “with the eyes of our own weakness.” So we are made bold, “bold to say that we have seen our salvation.”
But not all are made glad. Not all are rejoicing. Another voice enters to make his plaintive plea in prose. Have a thought for Herod. Spare a thought for old King Herod. He has tried everything to uphold Reason against Superstition’s black tide. He has taxed the card-players, he has banned the crystal-hustlers, he has made the medium a statutory offender, all to no avail. Even his own captain of the guard “wears an amulet against the Evil Eye.” “Reason is helpless,” he laments, “Legislation is helpless against the wild prayer of longing.” “Be interesting and weak like us,” they pray, “and we will love you as we love ourselves.”
This cannot be. This must not be. He dares not think what it would mean, if the trio who came to see him this morning figured it right. What would it mean for Revelation to replace Reason, Pity to replace Justice? It is too much, too much. It cannot be. The “corner-boy” must not be allowed to think himself such “a devil of a fellow” that God in flesh would come down to save him in person. The “crook” will, of course, seize his chance to go on sinning that mercy may abound. The “young cop” will take death-bed confessions. The “hermits, bums and invalids” will be “The New Aristocracy,” the new “heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy.” This cannot be. Naturally, this must not be. Oh come, don’t look at him so. He doesn’t want to be horrid. He objects. He’s “a liberal.” He wants “everyone to be happy.”
We follow the Family safely into Egypt. Then we return, famously, to anti-climax:
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.
And so all make their way back to the time being, the grown-up children who once “whispered so excitedly/Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be,” and “grew up when it opened.” We set the alarm and begin it all again. Again, we scrub the kitchen table that exists only because we scrub it. Again, we return to the office that was more depressing than we remembered. Again, we return to this “most trying time of all,” so trying that some would look even for suffering to break what can seem the more basic pain of gray sameness.
But patience, the voice whispers. Patience, to those who hang in the noonday balance between morning’s rejoicing and night’s anguish. Patience, to those who trust “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.”