For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio
Reviewed by Thomas Trzyna, English, Seattle Pacific University
Christian Scholar’s Review is a generalist journal, so the purpose of this review, above all, should be to recommend the poetry of one of the twentieth century’s most talented poets, W. H. Auden. Auden had the musical and compositional skills of Robert Frost and W. B. Yeats, while at the same time he spoke forcefully for his Christian faith and worked assiduously to frame a comprehensive understanding of literature, psychology, and politics. Alan Jacobs’ introduction offers deep scholarship on the historical, biographical, and intellectual background of For the Time Being, and his notes give helpful assistance to the reader and scholar without advocating for a particular interpretation. Professor Jacobs writes in the Preface that For the Time Being “would become the most explicitly Christian and biblical poem of his career” (vii), and while this assessment may be correct in the sense that the poem offers a version of the Nativity story, one could make a case that Auden crafted a more beautiful and profound statement of his faith in the poems collected as the Horae Canonicae, or Canonical Hours, that he composed a decade or more later.
Auden attempted to convey a perspective on the Nativity while at the same time responding, as Jacobs explains, to the death of his mother, the infidelity of his lover Chester Kallman, the catastrophe of another world war, and his rediscovery of the Christian faith. Auden saw himself as Joseph, challenged by the possible infidelity of Mary. He chose to write not merely a dramatic poem, but also a text to be set to music, drawing on conventions of Greek drama while inserting a narrator and using the “machinery” of Jung’s analysis of human faculties in a way that is broadly comparable to Alexander Pope’s use of the “machinery” of the Rosicrucian spirit world in The Rape of the Lock. Such a text calls for repetitions, choruses, and multiple interruptions as one voice follows another. The dust cover of this edition includes an assessment by Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker, that judges For the Time Being to be the best of Auden’s four long poems and the “heart of his work,” while at the same time describing the characters as a mixture of the “the participants in the Nativity story … and drunken New Yorkers.” This is curious praise. Auden is at his best as an intellectual poet who advances densely reasoned and memorably aphoristic verse. The Oratorio proves to be the opposite, as evidenced by the fact that the English composer Benjamin Britten declined to write music for Auden’s Oratorio, commenting that it had too many words. For the Time Being is neither his best work nor his best exploration of the Christian faith.
Jacobs writes, late in the notes, that “the idea that ‘weakness’ and ineptitude can be vehicles of grace is a major theme in Auden’s poetry in the 1940’s” (85). For example, in his Elegy for Yeats, Auden remarks that Yeats was “silly, like us.”1 The contrast between seriousness and ordinary stupidity appears throughout Auden’s work. His challenge, as he described it so well in his poem in memory of Louis MacNeice, is that “Even a limerick ought to be something a man of/honor, awaiting death from cancer or a firing squad,/could read without contempt.”2 For, as he concluded that memorial, “God may reduce you/on Judgment Day/to tears of shame,/reciting by heart/the poems you would/have written, had/your life been good.”3 On the recommendation of friends, Auden cut many limericks from the final version of his Oratorio. (Jacobs presents them for our inspection in the notes.) Auden caught the right balance in the short Chorus that reads: “Blessed Woman/Excellent Man, Redeem for the dull the/Average Way,/That common ungifted/Natures may/Believe that their normal/Vision can/Walk to perfection” (26). Overall, however, Auden’s Oratorio leans more to the playfulness and silliness of Composer/Conductor Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass than to the gravitas of Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem.
At times, as in the “Meditation of Simeon,” Auden delights in paradox to the point that he is hard to follow. In several sections of the Oratorio, however, he returns to a simplicity and a voice that allow us to participate, imaginatively, in the lives of Mary and Herod. Herod’s soliloquy stands with such poems as “Caliban to the Audience” and the “Vespers” section of the Horae Canonicae as one of Auden’s fine analyses of how attractive we find social order and political systems that deliver the goods, though not the Good.
Alan Jacobs ably summarizes the main themes of For the Time Being. He notes too that the Oratorio is inconclusive. It leaves the reader where it begins, in the middle of things, in this world where we must live for the time being. Karl Popper would have us ask, always, what are the implicit questions here? And what answers are proposed that we can critique? Auden announces a primary focus when he writes, in the second Semi-Chorus at the opening of the poem, “Can great Hercules keep his/Extraordinary promise/To reinvigorate the Empire?” (3). Herod articulates a political and philosophical answer to this question: more order, less religion and fantasy. Mary’s advice to her Son is to sleep, for “What have you learned from the womb that bore you/But an anxiety your father cannot feel” (40). We hear Herod’s political answer, but softly slumbering Christ does not have an equal opportunity to speak. In 1933 Auden wrote “A Summer Night,” which describes a religious vision he experienced one evening while lying “out on the lawn” (103). For the Time Being does not share such a mystical moment. If Auden was torn in this poem, as Jacobs suggests, between the Utopian and the Edenic, the polar opposites that haunt much of his work, he offers little of those four kinds of visions he described so well in his essay on The Protestant Mystics, collected in Forewords and Afterwords. Neither does he develop the idea of forgiveness, which was so important to his return to faith, and which he explored in The Prolific and the Devourer, the manuscript of reflections he set aside in 1939 that was not published in full until 1981 in a special edition of Anteaus edited by Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson. “In Praise of Limestone” offers something the Oratorio lacks: the living water, Jesus awake: “… when I try to imagine a faultless love/Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur/Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.”4
Auden is one of the few great poets of the twentieth century. Jacobs’ introduction and notes describe not only his own intellectual struggles, but also the responses of critics and friends who challenged his work, suggested cuts, and complained about his meanings. He continues to be a poet worth reading because the totality of his work constitutes a fully examined life that was enriched by deep reading, travel, and experience of history. If this review seems querulous, take that to be an invitation into the work of a poet who is worth quarreling with precisely because he is worth reading as thinker, musician, wordsmith, and believer. Indeed Auden is famous among poets for his habit of reconsidering and rewriting his poems, and sometimes striking them from his official canon, indicating that in his mind a poem was never a finished work but rather part of an ongoing inquiry and a continuing effort to achieve an accurate expression. Readers are cordially invited to explore Alan Jacobs’ fine edition of For the Time Being to join the discussion and to imagine their own vision of the Nativity.