A Christmas Oratorio: ‘For the Time Being’

During World War II, the poet W.H. Auden wrote a book-length poem entitled For the Time Being. It is subtitled, “A Christmas Oratorio,” and it is a retelling of the Christmas story, but with a 20th century sensibility. His Herod, for instance, is a technology-loving king who loves that he lives in an Age of Reason and is ever-perplexed by faith and irked that he must hunt down and exterminate the baby Jesus.

An oratorio is a type of composition that was popular in the Baroque period and in churches and has not had many comebacks as a poetic or theatrical form because it never had a period of dominance. It never went away but it was never the first choice of writing mode for many writers. (Paul McCartney produced a quite famous one, A Liverpool Oratorio, two decades ago.) Auden was a poet of structures and forms, though, and he produced an attempt at almost every style and poetic structure in his body of work (about 400 poems and several full-length verse plays).

Oratorios are not often staged because the form resides somewhere between performance and recitation. The piece will have characters, but the characters only address the audience and rarely each other. Music is not necessary but can supply punctuation and help telegraph and amplify the intended moods of the work. There is only one full-length recording of Auden’s Christmas oratorio online, from a performance in 2007 by the St. Peter’s Cultivators in Chicago:

 
By 1940, Auden’s personal spiritual journey saw him rejoin the Anglican Church of his youth in the form of the Episcopal Church. It was also around this time that he had emigrated from England to America. As Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, describes it, “Auden returned to the Anglican Communion in 1940 after seven years of thought about the moral content of Christianity, about what it means to love—or not to love—one’s neighbor as oneself.” (New York Review of Books, December 6, 2007.) More Mendelson:

Auden took seriously his membership in the Anglican Church and derived many of his moral and aesthetic ideas from Christian doctrines developed over two millennia, but he valued his church and its doctrines only to the degree that they helped to make it possible to love one’s neighbor as oneself. To the extent that they became ends in themselves, or made it easier for a believer to isolate or elevate himself, they became—in the word Auden used about most aspects of Christendom—unchristian. Church doctrines, like all human creations, were subject to judgment. […] Auden referred to himself as a “would-be Christian,” because, he said, even to call oneself a Christian would be an unchristian act of pride. “Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.” [Emphasis mine.]

After a decade in which he personally witnessed the Spanish Civil War and watched Europe move into two philosophies—fascism and democracy—and gird itself for a war over them, Auden removed himself to New York City and developed for himself a personal faith that to some might sound a-religious and to others like he had become born again. It is in that mode that he wrote For the Time Being, a work that uses both verse and prose and toys vertiginously with setting (it is simultaneously urban and contemporary, 1940, and the Roman Empire in its Judean outposts).

For Christmas Day 2015, here are two sections, a verse by the Star of the Nativity and part of a long monologue by Herod on the subject of Faith versus Reason and how Reason must triumph (but won’t). The full poem is found in Auden’s Collected Poems.

The Summons
STAR OF THE NATIVITY:

I am that star most dreaded by the wise,
For they are drawn against their will to me,
Yet read in my procession through the skies
The doom of orthodox sophrosyne:
I shall discard their major preservation,
All that they know so long as no one asks;
I shall deprive them of their minor tasks
In free and legal households of sensation,
Of money, picnics, beer, and sanitation.

 
Beware. All those who follow me are led
Onto that Glassy Mountain where are no
Footholds for logic, to that Bridge of Dread
Where knowledge but increases vertigo:
Those who pursue me take a twisting lane
To find themselves immediately alone
With savage water or unfeeling stone,
In labyrinths where they must entertain
Confusion, cripples, tigers, thunder, pain.

 
If you will recall from the story of the Birth, the Three Wise Men visit King Herod to ask if he knows the location of the newborn king of the Jews that they have heard about. In response, Herod requests that the Wise Men find the baby Jesus and report back to him, ostensibly so he can travel and worship the baby but in truth to eliminate the child who might usurp his crown. In Auden’s oratorio, Herod is given a four-and-a-half page prose speech, because a man of reason would not be represented, would not express himself, in verse. And Herod is above all a man of reason, a technocratic king with building projects throughout the land and an ongoing war against what he calls witchcraft and idolatry. He is also a bit of a fusspot:
 

The Massacre of the Innocents
Herod:

[…]To-day, apparently, judging by the trio who came to see me this morning with an ecstatic grin on their scholarly faces, the job has been done. “God has been born,” they cried, “we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.”
One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realise that if this rumour is not stamped out now, in few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.
 
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions—feelings in the solar plexus induced by undernourishment, angelic images generated by fevers or drugs, dream warnings inspired by the sound of falling water. Whole cosmogonies will be created out of some forgotten personal resentment, complete epics written in private languages, the daubs of schoolchildren ranked above the greatest masterpieces.
 
Idealism will be replaced by Materialism. Priapus will only have to move to a good address and call himself Eros to become the darling of middle-aged women. Life after death will be an eternal dinner party where all the guests are twenty years old. Diverted from its normal and wholesome outlet in patriotism and civic or family pride, the need of the materialistic Masses for some visible Idol to worship will be driven into totally unsocial channels where no education can reach it. Divine honours will be paid to silver tea-pots, shallow depressions in the earth, names on maps, domestic pets, ruined windmills, even in extreme cases, which will become increasingly common, to headaches, or malignant tumours, or four o’clock in the afternoon.
 
Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal human virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish. Every corner-boy will congratulate himself: “I’m such a sinner that God had to come down in person to save me. I must be a devil of a fellow.” Every crook will argue, “I like committing crimes. God likes forgiving them. Really the world is admirably arranged. And the ambition of every young cop will be to secure a death-bed repentance.
 
[…]
 
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. […] Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible? I don’t want to be horrid. Why can’t they see that the notion of a finite God is absurd? Because it is. And suppose, just for the sake of argument, that it isn’t, that this story is true, that this child is in some inexplicable manner both God and Man, that he grows up, lives, and dies, without committing a single sin? Would that make life any better?

 
A conclusion tomorrow. Thank you for indulging me today. Merry Christmas, everyone.

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