This post comes to us from Ken Wilson:

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” Emily Dickinson famously wrote, warning that “the Truth’s superb surprise” may be “too bright for our infirm Delight,” too much for many of us to take in. Walker Percy, addressing one of the most difficult communications challenges in the late 20th century, noted that “the old words of grace are worn smooth as poker chips,” and the Christian truth-teller in a skeptical age must find new ones.

W. H. Auden faced both problems, really, when in 1941 he set out to tell the story of Christ’s birth: the age-old problem of conveying a message so startling and implausible that it’s all but incomprehensible in the fullness of its import, and the more recent problem of overcoming, in a nominally but no longer faith-filled Christian culture, a boredom born of familiarity. Even his own father was nonplussed upon first encountering For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, his son’s book-length setting of the Christmas story in which Mary, Joseph, Herod, the shepherds, and others speak in a range of high and low and always contemporary idioms unrecognizable to either King James or to first-century Israelites.

Told in dramatic monologues which Auden naïvely expected his friend Benjamin Britten to set to music (Britten’s rejection of the poem as far too complicated for music caused a rift), it opens in a doleful and despairing mood, with “a lost mankind” crying “we who must die demand a miracle,” and leads through each Biblical episode as told by its principal characters.

Along the way it contains passages which, notwithstanding their underlying gravity, are at the same time clever and entertaining. Feigning bewilderment and hunting excuses for his murderous deed to come, Herod whips himself into a froth of self-justifying self-pity: “I’m a liberal. I want everyone to be happy. I wish I had never been born.” Patronized as a cuckold as he awaits his “own true Love” in a cheery bar, Joseph, here a unassumingly sexist Everyman, is made to atone “in silence and alone” for his own sins and those of his fellow males.

Auden ends his would-be oratorio, after an account of the flight into Egypt, with a short and uncharacteristically straightforward bit of evangelism: a call to follow, seek, and love “the Way,” “the Truth,” and “the Life.” But what moves me most is the page and a half given over to the poem’s “Narrator” — a poignant blend of gospel hope with a sobering and admonitory realism about our still sinful inclinations and the often humdrum and deflating character of our daily lives. With the season of Advent and the special observation of Christ’s First Coming behind us, the speaker observes, now is the time when “the Spirit” and we “must practice [our] scales of rejoicing” as we return to the mundane and the quotidian post-Christmas life.

Human nature remaining human nature, we have “attempted — quite unsuccessfully — / To love all our relatives [it’s easier on Zoom!], and in general / Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again / As in previous years we have seen the Vision and failed / To 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.”

Back “in the moderate Aristotelian city” — the city, as I take it, where the star in the sky is a distant celestial body and not a harbinger of astonishing good news — where we must scrub the kitchen table and rush to catch the 8:15, science explains all there is to know and understand. Faith fades, or at least fades from our moment-by-moment consciousness, and the present returns to a dreary disappointment.

“To those who have seen the Child,” as the Narrator says, “the present is … 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.” For the time being we must labor, and in doing so “redeem” our days from “insignificance.”

This “inconclusiveness,” this betwixt and between the miraculous and the matter-of-course as we still await redemption, writes Alan Jacobs, “mimics that of its audience” — perhaps especially an audience at the end of a long pandemic year. We may be willing and able to believe but are still unable to escape an exceptional and belief-challenging threat. “The happy morning is over, / The night of agony [Gethsemane] still to come,” and the believer’s soul endures in expectation “A silence that is neither for nor against her faith.”

It’s this fortitude, this resolute determination while yet we remember “the stable where for once in our lives / Everything became a You and nothing was an It,” that gets me. For giving words — rich and provocative, amusing and affecting words — to our present-day and perennial predicament, and for the good news and strong sustenance of For the Time Being, I am thankful for W.H. Auden.


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 be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.