“And who knows if it is by design or pure inadvertence
That the Present destroys its inherited self-importance?
With envy, terror, rage, regret,
We anticipate or remember but never are.
To discover how to be living now
Is the reason I follow this star.”
– The Second Wise Man, from “For the Time Being”
Since finding a copy at a secondhand book sale three years ago, I’ve read Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” every December. Like the title implies, the work is a long poem (originally meant to be sung, although it rarely is) that relates the events of the classic Christmas story. All of the individuals usually present in Christmas pageants are included: Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Herod, the Magi—even Simeon gets a lengthy soliloquy—but Auden’s work brings far more to the table than the average pageant. Although it stays true to the Biblical events and retains a Christmastime feel, the poem portrays the story in a wholly unique way that resonates both in December and throughout the year.
Auden divides his poem into nine parts, each of which explores in detail the events surrounding the Nativity. Part one, “Advent,” both laments humanity’s jaded, weary, decayed state and demands a solution. It’s followed by “The Annunciation,” which reiterates the magnitude of humanity’s fouled-up affairs; however, it ends with rejoicing as Mary receives news that she will carry the Messiah. In the following three parts, “The Temptation of St. Joseph,” “The Summons,” and “The Vision of the Shepherds,” each group of characters is called to Bethlehem, and in various turns they experience anticipation, apprehension, despondency, and jubilation. The subsequent section, “At the Manger,” simultaneously blends feelings of triumph and sadness over Jesus’ birth. “The Meditation of Simeon” and “The Massacre of the Innocents” offer philosophical discussions of the birth, ultimately disagreeing over its implications. The poem concludes with “The Flight into Egypt,” when the focus shifts from the story itself to how it relates to the audience.
Among the poem’s most enticing features is its divergence from the emotions expressed in other portrayals of the story. In traditional pageants and musical pieces, there is an ongoing sense of anticipation, peace, and impending victory. They make it seem almost inappropriate to have other emotions, the characters practically saying, “The Messiah is coming, after all. How could we feel anything else?” Auden’s work, however, renders the Nativity as a tremendously disruptive and tumultuous event. There’s no serene plot that slowly builds to the silent night in the stable. Instead, Auden presents an alternating series of struggles and triumphs: despair and hope duel for victory throughout the piece, even in the scenes that occur after the Nativity. Of course, hope eventually wins, but it fights hard to do so.
The poem consequently makes a stronger impression on the audience than other depictions do. Portraying vulnerable characters is both more effective than having larger-than-life heroes and more faithful to how the historical events likely occurred. Auden realized people need an accessible story that mirrors their own emotional struggles, even dedicating a portion of Simeon’s prose soliloquy to explaining that concept: “That which hitherto we could only passively fear as the incomprehensible I AM, henceforth we may actively love with comprehension that THOU ART.” His success in addressing this need is one of the reasons why the poem is so compelling.
The brilliance of the piece is further compounded by Auden’s poetic technique. With alternating meters and occasional rhyme schemes, each section has an effortless lyrical feeling. Although the lines are rarely sung, they flow in a way that makes it easy to picture them being set to music. One can almost hear the crescendos in Joseph’s desperation, the pompous brass accompanying the Magi’s speeches, and the strings in the shepherds’ jubilee. Creating effective poetry is difficult enough, yet evoking musical sensation in the absence of music, as Auden does, is purely masterful.
“For the Time Being” is often overlooked in the literary traditions of Christmas, but it deserves to be recognized for its ingenuity and uniqueness amid the more trite modern depictions. Diving into philosophy while expressing some of humanity’s most powerful emotions, Auden’s piece confronts what it means to be human and explores how that affects humanity’s relationship with God, both personally and societally. With potent poetry throughout, it’s the Christmas story for the modern age and for any time of year. It’s for the cynic, the weary, and the despondent. It’s the Christmas story for all of us.
Interested readers can purchase the Princeton University Press edition of “For the Time Being” on Amazon and on the press’ website. An older version can also be read online at Archive.org as part of Religious Drama 1.