For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio

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For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio
By W.H. Auden
Princeton University Press – £13.95

All I ask is one
Important and elegant proof
That what my love had done
Was really at your will
And that your will is Love.

It’s hard to tell what makes a great poet. Obviously language plays a considerable part, but more often than not, it’s the imagination at play or at rest within the language, that sets the many thousands of dull poets apart from the mere handful of geniuses.

W. H. Auden was such a genius.

His flight of imaginative prowess and command of the English language, not to mention his extraordinarily, relentless pursuit in wanting to get it just right, remains (almost) unsurpassed to this very day: ‘’Therefore, we see without looking, hear without listening, breathe without asking.’’

Admittedly, there are great poets out there, but I believe Auden – along with the likes of Ted Hughes – is simply exemplary. For The Time Being – A Christmas Oratorio is not only a fine example of this, but could well be the first Christmas related review you have so far read this year!

Written in Memoriam of his mother Constance Rosalie Auden (of whom he wrote: ‘’When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard.’’), this collection is exactly what its title suggests. Although, as with much of Auden’s work, the trajectory of some of his writing meanders unto territory that is not in the least expected. Some might consider this to be both dangerous and exciting, while others might feel a little abandoned, if not lost at the first staging post.

For instance, in relation to the Wise Men towards the end of the oratorio (‘At The Manger’) Auden writes:

Love is more serious than Philosophy
Who sees no humour in her observation
That Truth is knowing that we know we lie.

While in relation to Shepherds, he immediately continues:

When, to escape what our memories are thinking,
We go out at nights and stay up drinking,
Stay then with our sick pride and mind
The forgetful mind.

Might not the above seven lines actually equate love within philosophy?

Again, the territory into which Auden occasionally ventures really does need to be delicately deciphered. It’s like drinking a fine wine with a certain after-taste that is simply unknown – but provocatively alluring nevertheless. And it is this altogether unknowing trait of Auden’s, which invariably continues to ensure that his reputation remains nigh unsurpassed.

David Marx

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