‘Well, So That Is That’

The concluding sections of W.H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being, continue his blend of the contemporary and everyday with the mysterious and eternal. All of modern philosophy is briefly made to vanish in a blur of the mundane world:

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 fact of faith—not what one has faith in, but that faith exists, is a reality itself—that is the miracle of the day, is what Christmas is about:

Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.


“For the Time Being” was published in 1944. It is found in Auden’s Collected Poems. Section III is perhaps the most often reprinted part of the poem:

III
NARRATOR:

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.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week—
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted—quite unsuccessfully—
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
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. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
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.

 

IV
CHORUS:

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.

____________________________________________
The WordPress Daily Prompt for December 26 asks us to reflect on the word, “Retreat.”

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4 comments

  1. Pingback: Retreat – Daily Prompt – Ladyleemanila
  2. Leigh W. Smith · December 27

    You are always so good to remind us of Auden, Mark. In reading this, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was in any way Auden’s response to T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, which was published just a few years prior to Auden’s oratorio (again, both have musical referents in the title; both significantly tackle issues like faith and time and meaning and even the quotidian). In any case, I always regain an appreciation (that was never lost) of Auden through what you write. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mark Aldrich · December 28

      That is a great lead to offer me, Leigh! Thank you very much, my friend.

      Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Leigh W. Smith · December 29

        No worries, Mark. Happy New Year’s to y’all as well. Stay curious and keep writing! 🙂

        Like

Please comment here. Thank you, Mark.

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