‘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.

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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).
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Auden’s ‘September 1, 1939’

Shortly before his death, the poet W.H. Auden told talk-show host (and former politician) Richard Crossman, “Nothing I wrote prevented one Jew from being gassed or stalled the war for five seconds.”

At first glance, this places the bar very high for the role of a writer in the affairs of the world, but it is simply a stark assessment of the reality that a writer has no say in the practical matters of life and death. He is not saying that words do not matter but is instead drawing the boundary between where they do matter and where they can not. Writers are makers and not doers, not “men of action,” Auden also liked to say.
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