The Beginning of Time: Auden and the Advent of Hope

For W.H. Auden, there are two general ways of thinking of time—either history inevitably repeats itself, locking events into an established cycle where “time turns round itself in an obedient circle,” or history is made up of ordered times, of a regiment of generations marching toward a goal, of a string of events that are being purposefully directed toward an appointed end. It is only the second view that allows for the possibility of surprise; the arrival of the unexpected. Only a linear scheme of time allows for the hope of its own deliverance.

Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio ushers us into the world of antiquity, an age caught in the spokes of the wheel of time, in order for us to understand something of that gift which has been made known to us as the present. Among Auden’s concerns is demonstrating how something as seemingly insignificant as a moment can break the shackles of cyclical repetitions; how past exists as a point of no return, and yet stretches forth its fingers so as to carve its initials into both the Now and the Not Yet. In such a time as this, as Auden delineates, the world is free and choices matter. Or rather, the world just is free because choices matter. His is a poetic polemic against the Sisyphean nightmare in which Tomorrow is always crushed beneath the weight of Yesterday. This he does by bringing his considerable powers to bear upon a specific time stamp that upset the world of antiquity by breaking history into pieces—the Incarnation of God.

For those ancients whose hopes were ever wounded by the “outrageous slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune,” the thought of liberation from the Fates and the Furies should have come as good news. One might even say gospel. But it would require the abandonment of everything they believed about the world; a great change of mind, a metanoia. “How could the Eternal do a temporal act, The Infinite become a finite fact?” Ah! This was all just so much foolishness to the Greeks, and to the rest of pagan antiquity, a rock of offense. But the desire for deliverance from the despotism of destiny is a strong one, leading Auden’s seekers to cry out, “Nothing can save us that is possible, / We who must die demand a miracle.”

We who must die demand a miracle.

How could the Eternal do a temporal act,

The Infinite become a finite fact?

Nothing can save us that is possible:

We who must die demand a miracle.

~W.H. Auden

Fortunately for these inquirers, God only deals in impossibilities. The poet, exercising his anachronistic license, has a ragtag band of shepherds and wise men on the scene when the miraculous occurs. As they behold the mystery, their thoughts, too, turn to the subject of time:

Shepherds: Our sullen wish to go back to the womb,

Wise Men: To have no past.

Shepherds: No future,

Tutti: Is refused.

That red-faced babe, nestled at a virgin’s breast, shattered for them the tyranny of Time. At once, they came to know that history could not be cyclical because it had a point. And seeing the face of God in creaturely form, the sharp end of history pierced their astonished hearts. What they witnessed in that hallowed hour so ruptured the world that from that point on there could only be something called before and after.

Auden’s Oratorio presents us with the possibility of a new way of being in time. The Incarnation of God gives rise to the incarnation of the gospel in the lives of those who hear and receive it. Seeing the face of God in flesh inevitably leads to seeing His image in those whom He has made. Gerard Manley Hopkins captures this in his memorable lines from As Kingfishers Catch Fire, “Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features of men’s faces.” Just so, Auden’s Simeon echoes this sentiment and gives voice to the other-oriented focus of the Christ-stricken vision:

By Him is illuminated the time in which we execute those choices through which our freedom is realized or prevented, for the course of History is predictable in the degree to which all men love themselves, and spontaneous in the degree to which each loves God and through Him his neighbor.

For Auden, the Incarnation was not only a transformation of time in the world, but also a transformation of all those who are privy to the wonder of it. Hear again his startled shepherds:

Third Shepherd:

Tonight for the first time the prison gates

Have opened.

First Shepherd: Music and sudden light

Second Shepherd: Have interrupted our routine tonight,

Third Shepherd: And swept the filth of habit from our hearts.

The Three Shepherds: O here and now our endless journey starts.

This is a marvelous example of what Tolkien called eucatastrophe; a neologism meaning “good destruction.” But unlike a catastrophe, these moments of “unmaking” are for the express purpose of “remaking.” It is what the biblical writers would refer to as “New Creation.”

Note the ways in which the poet unmakes and remakes the character’s perception of time, the world, and their place in it. The Third Shepherd viewed his existence as a prison; but “tonight” the iron bars have opened to him “for the first time.” The First Shepherd speaks of “sudden” light. The Second Shepherd joins antiphonally with his own admission that the heavenly visitation has “interrupted our routine tonight.” The Third Shepherd rejoins with his talk of long held “habits.” Then the three together exult in the freedom of their God-oriented futures, “here” and “now” our “endless journey starts.”

Their joyous anticipation is almost contagious. Gazing into the cherubic face of the Christ, the nature of choices and choosing is finally revealed to them. Singular moments can make a difference. In fact, they are all that ever have. “Time is our choice of How to love and Why.” Liberated from the icy grasp of Fate and endowed with hearts of flesh by the God Made Flesh, they set forth on a journey to redeem the time—and the rest of the world along with it.

There is much more that could be said about Auden’s Oratorio; the ways in which he contemporizes the past so that we can appreciate the pressure it exerts; its awareness of the constant seduction of the cyclical view of history ever tugging on our hearts, tempting us to return to the false freedom of nihilism; the subtle reminder of our tendency to confuse the quotidian with the meaningless; and of course, an eye towards the struggle of living in the present as though every second matters here in “The Time Being.”

Even so, it is ultimately a series of love poems: Love of God; love of neighbor; love of living. Auden reminds us that when we maintain the proper order of virtues within this trinity, these three are one. For the Time Being may legitimately be categorized as “love poetry” because it bespeaks a promise born of a Love that was ancient, even before the beginning of time.

 


J. Brandon Meeks

J. Brandon Meeks is a writer, studio musician, and Christian scholar. He serves his local parish as Theologian-in-Residence. He received his PhD. from the University of Aberdeen, Scotland. He is also a fan of Alabama football, the blues, and cheese. He blogs regularly at www.highchurchpuritan.com.


'The Beginning of Time: Auden and the Advent of Hope' have 3 comments

  1. December 21, 2021 @ 7:27 am Daniel Logan

    This is excellent, Dr. Meeks. Thank you.

    Reply

  2. December 21, 2021 @ 9:27 am Cynthia Erlandson

    I’m very thankful that you wrote this, and alerted me to this piece of Auden’s. I love his poetry, and will look forward to reading this one.

    Reply

  3. January 3, 2022 @ 6:39 am Alexander Whitaker

    Lovely. Few people know of this work, and Auden’s own habits of life probably kept many Christians from appreciating it. There are within it some absolute gems, however, as you have so ably described . Last year—one marked for many by anxiety— I used this excerpt (Simeon) as the message for the Christmas card of the university I lead:

    And because of His visitation,
    we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking:
    our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit
    but of surrender to Him
    who is always and everywhere present.
    Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him,
    we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

    Reply


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