W. H. Auden: Poems

W. H. Auden: Poems Summary and Analysis of "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio"


A chorus speaks of the world, full of darkness and chaos. Crowds mumble, and a fat Caesar falls asleep on his throne. The semi-chorus speaks of Hercules and his inability to reinvigorate the Empire. Arachne waits for him. Decay and ruined temples populate the land. The chorus speaks of winter leveling the land, tearing down towers and deleting trees. The semi-chorus speaks of a “wild passion” waiting to destroy and be destroyed. The chorus says the evil and the armed are drawing near; the “weather smells of their hate / And the houses smell of our fear.” Our plans are awry, the rains are too late, and the general falls down dead.

The narrator presents the world as it was. The two sexes are the weak and the strong. Piracy, devastation of land, and the death of princes have all happened before. Time continues to turn in a circle, and events happen again and again and turn into “their formal opposites.” The bad and the good are part of a pattern. We are used to this and can “cut our losses” and bury our dead. We do not think God has ever forsaken his people. This, though, was when we were children; it was before “an outrageous novelty had been introduced / Into our lives.” We were not warned, but we started to get wind of something. Now we know that it is there and nothing like it has ever happened before. Our old selves are a fiction. We would have welcomed a ghost, but this is too different; we are afraid of the silence. This is the “Abomination” and the “Wrath of God.”

The chorus says we are alone in the “dreadful wood.” It calls for Justice, for Law. We who die want a miracle, and we wonder how the Eternal could do a “temporal act” and make the Infinite a “finite fact.”

The chorus seeks to understand death and definition. We are human and might slip back into idolatry and philosophy while we wait.

The Annunciation

The four faculties of Jung are present. They watch and wait and comprise Man when he was free, before the rebellion. Intuition is located in the belly, Feeling in the heart, Sensation in a giant’s hand, and Thought in the brain. They lure men into death or salvation. Here they speak of what happened in the Garden of Eden. It is full of silence until Feeling announces that Mary is walking within.

The angel Gabriel speaks to Mary, telling her that love has made her dream happen. She rejoices, and Gabriel confirms that her power to choose gave her the ability to conceive the child.

The Temptation of St. Joseph

Joseph calls out to God as people jostle him about Mary’s putative infidelity. Gabriel visits him. The narrator tells Joseph he must now be the weaker and passive sex; here, masculinity is a “non-essential luxury.” Lust has made Virginity a fetish held onto by “worn-out rakes and maiden aunts.”

The Summons

The Star of the Nativity claims to be the star most dreaded by the wise, as it deprives people of their normal tasks and normal lives. Those who follow it are entering a realm with no logic and will find themselves alone.

The first wise man says he is putting Nature through an Inquisition, showing her to be a liar like we all are. That is why he follows the star. The second wise man says he no longer has faith in Time’s constant, seeing the Present destroy its “inherited self-importance.” That is why he follows the star. The third wise man says he follows the star because he wants to learn how to be loving now. The three wise men say they are following the star to learn how to be human now. The star tells them to descend into the depths of Tribulation and take Terror for a guide, but then emerge and wake in their lover’s arms.

Caesar has demanded a census. The Fugal-Chorus explains the ways Caesar has conquered the Seven Kingdoms. First, he conquered the Kingdom of Abstract Idea, bringing order and type and “one unconditioned ground of Being.” Second, he conquered the Kingdom of Natural Cause; now there are laws, laboratories, experiments, and point-readings instead of prayers, and lives are efficient, not erratic. Third, he conquered the Kingdom of Infinite Numbers; there are exact amounts, integers, and Transcendentals. Fourth, he conquered the Kingdom of Credit Exchange, bringing paper symbols of value and customers and markets. Fifth, he conquered the Kingdom of Inorganic Giants; what we want they make, what we can’t traverse they carry us over, and Fate is now Freedom of Mind. Sixth, he conquered the Kingdom of Organic Dwarfs; diseases are struck dead, worries are thrown out, we are made to feel like lions instead of sheep, and Spirit is not under flesh but on top of it. Seventh, he conquered the Kingdom of the Popular Soul; whatever he says we feel, we feel it, and whatever he says we do, we do it.

The narrator says, “History is in the Making.” In the Fullness of Time we will get to the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Vision of the Shepherds

The shepherds discuss waiting for the Good News. The Chorus of Angels proclaims a child is born, and a “great joy has filled / the narrow and the sad.” The shepherds rejoice. The Chorus says that from this day on, humans can be certain that the Father Abyss “Is affectionate / To all Its creatures.”

At the Manger

Mary looks down at her sleeping child, Jesus, and tries to soothe him. She evokes the sorrows of the world and Christ’s future death. She wonders how soon he will begin treading the “Sorrowful Way.” The wise men traverse the land and arrive in Bethlehem. The shepherds also arrive. Both groups of men discuss how their routines have been disrupted and say that Love will cure their laziness, conceit, longing for death, and “filth of habit.” They speak of the power of Love.

The Meditation of Simeon

Simeon speaks of the conditions under which the Fall happened. Intimacy between humans and nature was disrupted, otherwise humans might not think the Fall an eternal state but merely a childish one they had outgrown. But humans cannot solve their own problems. Jesus has become a human being, helping us know our own weakness. Art, imagination, reason, and science are made more meaningful through the incarnation. We do not need to pursue salvation ourselves but should accept God’s action.

The Massacre of the Innocents

Herod speaks to himself about his kingdom. There seemingly could be nothing more innocent than the birth of an artisan’s child. There seems no danger to the Empire; life goes on as normal. The darkness of the uncivilized has been pushed back a little over the past twenty years; people are not as superstitious or irrational. However, every day “new prophets spring up to sound the old barbaric note.” All his legislative remedies, though, are little match for “the wild prayer of longing that rises, day in, day out.” The people want a God who is interesting and weak like themselves. They do not want a Zeus; they want to recognize God immediately. Herod fears reason will be replaced by revelation, and all knowledge will “degenerate like a riot of subjective visions.” He thinks justice will replace pity as the cardinal virtue and that the new aristocracy will be lower-class people like bums and hermits and invalids. He wants to save civilization even if he has to use the military and massacre the innocent. He wishes the infant would be born elsewhere.

The Flight into Egypt

Joseph and Mary speak of their descent into the desert, a hot wasteland. Egypt is going to be spiritually void; it is “rotten.” Their flight is like a reversal of the exodus from the Old Testament.

The narrator brings the oratorio to a close, evoking the modern world’s Christmas. We put away decorations and presents and leftovers, and we stop pretending to love our relatives. As usual, we entertain the Vision but send it away, preferring to be, as usual, the disobedient servant. The modern era is a trying time for belief, but God’s will endures and will continue to be done; “God will cheat no one.”

The chorus says He is the way, the truth, and the life.


For the Time Being,” subtitled “A Christmas Oratorio,” was written between 1941 and 1942 when Auden was in America. It was published in 1944 near the end of the Second World War. Tom F. Driver’s critical work on the poem explains that it is a “study of the meaning and relevance of the Incarnation and is grounded in the biblical stories of the birth of Christ.” It was intended to be set to music by Benjamin Britten, but Britten used only a couple of small segments. It is a very long and difficult piece, with complicated biblical, philosophical, and psychological themes and ideas, although the language is modern. The traditional characters of the Nativity, however, are recognizable, and a narrator, chorus, and semi-chorus give dramatic monologues while evoking ancient theatrical traditions. The entire piece is framed in the context of a family’s contemporary Christmas, although the reader does not discover that until the end of the work.

The poem begins with the Advent, in which a chorus and semi-chorus evoke the world before Christ came. This “Horror” is the breaking up of the world dominated by the spatial, the world full of darkness and decay and winter. The narrator explains that time is cyclical; it is the classical pagan world where “time turns round itself in an obedient circle.” This is a strange period of limbo before Christ comes, because it is a world poised between space and time, with Auden referring to it as “the wrath of God.” Humans are afraid of this silence, “for no nightmare / Of hostile objects could be as terrible as this Void.” Compare Herod’s and Caesar’s attempts to bring order to their times later in the poem.

Mary and Joseph are introduced in The Annunciation and The Temptation of St. Joseph. Mary is making up for the mistakes of Adam and Eve by choosing to be the vessel for God. Joseph’s temptation allows Auden to comment on the treatment of women.

The three wise men try to solve the problems of man’s existence through scientific and rational methods but fail. The first one realizes Nature is a liar, the second realizes Time cannot be counted on and there is no such thing as the present, and the third, as a moral philosopher, is concerned with moral obligation vs. spontaneous love.

In The Summons, as Miriam K. Starkman explains in her article on the poem, the seven-stanza hymn to Caesar “parodies not only the words of the Annunciation but also the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost—Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety, Fear of the Lord—all of which Caser notably lacks. Instead, he is in possession of the Seven Kingdoms he has conquered, constituting a new embodiment of the Seven Deadly Sins of the Secular State: of metaphysics, science, mathematics, economics, technology, medicine, and psychology.”

One of the most difficult sections, The Meditation of Simeon, describes man’s state before the Fall and the decisiveness of that event. He suggests an intellectual history of mankind, according to Driver: man “had to reach a certain stage before the time of the Incarnation could come. It could not come before certain thoughts were had, and had to come when time was emancipated from space and man discovered Original Sin and the One and the Many.” These discoveries were necessary prior to the Incarnation, a key turning point in intellectual history, permitting the fullness of time to be revealed. Driver writes that “time is more significant than space, since it is time that brings the possibility and the urgency of choice.” Finally, Simeon spells out the implications of the Child for imagination and art, science, and the search for God.

In the section on the Massacre of the Innocents, Herod, a paragon of liberal humanism, legitimates his mass murder of children in order to hold onto his civilized kingdom. He rues the coming loss of his enlightened populace and excoriates their desire for a God who is like them.

The final section, the Flight into Egypt, evokes the Gospel of Matthew’s association of Christ with Moses. Christ is the new lawgiver and the leader of the itinerants in the wasteland. The poem also suggests metaphorically that the desert is the garden because it shelters the rose, and the time is noon. This is the Time Being, the time of interim. As in the Bible, past and present are interwoven. The poem’s being written in the present tense while writing about ostensibly past events is thus important.

While a long and certainly abstruse treatment of a well-known series of events, “For the Time Being” can offer even casual readers insight into the nature of Christmas, and it is a key encapsulation of Auden’s interest in time, faith, love, and hope. Yet, it is easy for the casual celebration of Christmastime to ignore all of the deeper issues. At the least, however, for the time being, celebrating Christmas means recognizing something about the change that occurred through the life of Jesus, the Christ (meaning Messiah or savior).