For the Time Being
A Christmas Oratorio
By W.H. Auden
Edited by Alan Jacobs
Princeton University Press. 136 pp. $19.95
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Reviewed by John Timpane
Clive James said it best, in the November 2012 issue of Poetry: "It is always as if Auden has just arrived."
Well, a new Auden, or a new edition of a celebrated Auden, has just arrived, and it is cause for general happiness.
Auden published For the Time Being in 1944, roughly contemporary with another monumental religious work, T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Princeton University Press, like all of us from time to time I suppose, is on an Auden jag. First, there is this long-awaited, happy-making edition, by the attentive Alan Jacobs, who has also edited another Auden masterwork, The Age of Anxiety.
(But there's more. In October, Princeton will publish a short Auden study by Alexander McCall Smith, he of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency and universes more. That, too, is a lovely thing.)
For the Time Being is called a Christmas oratorio, and that is what Auden originally wanted it to be. For a while, he assumed his onetime collaborator, Benjamin Britten, would write the music for it, as he had for Paul Bunyan and other works. But Time doesn't work as an oratorio: Among the astonishing lyrics and heroic couplets, the song forms and syllabic stanzas, there are also big, blocky text passages, fabulous as prose poetry, impossible as a libretto.
Auden started writing it, as Jacobs shows, at a poignant point in history and in his personal life. The world was convulsed by war. He had moved to the United States. He had re-embraced Christianity. His mother had recently died. At the same time, he discovered that the man he considered his spouse, Chester Kallman, did not consider sexual fidelity part of the agreement, and that, if Auden wished to keep living with Kallman, he'd just have to deal.
Conflict and suffering, then, coil beneath the shimmering, witty, anxious, finely worked surface. Throughout, we thrill to the frequent Auden breathtakers, the one-liners, the beauty-bursts summing it up once and for all:
To choose what is difficult all one's days
As if it were easy, that is faith.
Such freshness is why Auden always seems just to have arrived. Whether in "Funeral Blues," memorialized for a generation in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral, or in "September 1, 1939," so widely shared after 9/11, his poetry returns, reminds, refreshes. Here, Joseph cries:
All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my Love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.
(Lines that apply equally to the coming of Jesus and to any human love!)
We also have Auden, perhaps his century's greatest lyricist, tapping the simplest, deepest sources of English song:
Joseph, Mary, pray for those
Misled by moonlight and the rose
As the smile at the corner of your lips may indicate, this isn't just traditional. It's modern, with its wry misled. That's how Auden rolls.
This is a frankly mystical poem: It assumes a constant in-touchness with the divine in our lives. Its anxiety is to locate just where that point of contact is, here and now, for us. Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, embodies that touchpoint. It's called the Incarnation, where the divine intervenes in history.
In Mary's motherhood and in the Cross, the Incarnation is easy to see. But here? All is under threat. Life on Earth. Western civilization. The dark weight of that dread - what drove Ezra Pound crazy, drove Virginia Woolf to suicide, compelled Eliot to write the Quartets - is here, too, fear of annihilation, enslavement to overwhelming institutions, nothingness. The Narrator says, "No nightmare/ Of hostile objects could be as terrible as this Void."
So Joseph, faced with quite a challenge (to accept his wife's otherwise unaccountable pregnancy as the coming of God!), pleads for assurance that Love is the plan. Speaking for the war-torn billions on Earth, everyone in For the Time Being does - the Shepherds, the Wise Men, Mary (surprised that the Word "Should ask to wear me . . . For a wedding ring"), Simeon, and the masterfully drawn, hilarious Herod:
I brush my teeth every night. I haven't had sex for a month. I object. I'm a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.
A self-styled rationalist, Herod is afraid that, if the Messiah comes, his tidy rationalist state will crumble, so he sees he must put all the firstborn to death.
I am incapable of reading the last pages of For the Time Being without tears. That mundane, understated Narrator, post-Christmas ("Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,/ Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes . . . "), locates the Incarnation for us: in the moment of existence, the Now we know better than anything yet cannot grasp, the constantly renewed mystery of moment-to-moment. The frustrations of here and now flow, ironically, from seeing God there:
To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
As we redeem the time, we are redeemed, a truth we can never grasp.
In Four Quartets, Eliot had a mystical apprehension of the bombing of London, where "the rose and the fire are one." Auden's last three ecstatic, ironic stanzas call on us to follow Jesus "through the Land of Unlikeness;/ You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures." The trip will be surreal, as For the Time Being often is, but it will end as For the Time Being ends, with "joy."