For the Time Being

For the Time Being

an excerpt from the Flight into Egypt section of For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio by W.H. Auden

I posted this two years ago and fell in love with it and went and bought the book. And I still haven’t finished reading the whole thing because, honestly, it drags. And this might be the best part. But it is truly lovely and captures so well that post-Christmas re-entry into the time after, the time being, as Auden calls it. I love the way it looks forward to Lent and Good Friday. That’s as it should be. And the way despite the focus on the mundane, there is also that glimmer of the transcendent. It’s haunted a bit, too, by that noonday devil, acedia, sloth, the temptation not to care too much. And it seems that’s what I’m fighting here, by renewing my resolve to care about this blog, to care about posting poetry and art and updates of our everyday lives. In the hopes that writing leads to mindfulness and a certain kind of sanctifying of the time.


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.


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.

image: Nativity icon, the Theotokos and the Christ Child in a cave, which in Orthodox iconography is a prefigurement of the tomb. via Flickr

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  • Auden is on the list for this, my poetry year. Thank you for sharing this. It’s breathtaking. And oh so familiar. And that you tied his noon time to the noon time demon acedia. Yes. Indeed. You have redeemed this in between time just before dinner for me today, Melanie.

  • I love Auden so much, and part of me is a little bit ashamed of it because — I don’t know — he seems lowbrow in a way? Populist? Or cliché? “Funeral Blues” is one of my very favorite poems. I think he has a way of capturing modern — I don’t know — discontent — that is just very, very true-feeling. In this case there’s a weariness to Christmas that maybe I was trying to capture in that pre-new-year blog post ( — there, #BLI05 -ers, I’m cheating again) — of course Auden does it better.

    But I feel that if I was the poetic sort, I could write a poem on the theme of The Weariness Of Christmas every single year, and put it in my holiday cards.

    I take it there’s a I and a II to this poem. I might have to check them out.

    • Erin, I think it might have been your blog post that reminded me of the poem and made me go back to find it.

      The poem is a full length oratorio like The Messiah, 65 pages. The III here actually is the third part of the Flight Into Egypt section, which is the 9th and final section of the poem. I’m still working my way through the poem. Some parts I like better than others. Some kind of drag. He’s working through a lot of different things. I don’t feel I have a good grasp of it all, but this section is definitely shifted in tone, winding down to a conclusion.

      Funny because I’ve always thought Auden rather higbrow. But I think the way I think of him is tied up with the particular classmate who chose Auden for his poet our junior year (when I chose Eliot) some poets are so very tied to who I know read them and how they read them.