Reading W.H. Auden through Advent and Christmas
or the past couple of years, as part of my observance of Advent and Christmas I’ve made it my practice to read W.H. Auden’s cycle of poems, For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio. I’d love to give it a wide open commendation, but as it is a fairly lengthy (in my edition, it runs just over 50 pages) and substantial work, I feel it is only fair to be a bit more nuanced here.
Auden takes the reader through the whole cycle of the seasonal biblical stories, and at the same time walks you through from the opening days of Advent through to the packing up of all of the holiday stuff at the end of the 12 days of Christmas. He tells the familiar story, but somehow it is as much about the social context in which he wrote the cycle, that of the Second World War. At times you wonder where he’s going and what he’s writing about… and then there will be a line or a stanza or a whole section that simply stops you in your tracks with its breathtaking insight.
While you might be able to find the whole oratorio online, if you’re interested in reading For the Time Being it is probably best to track down a paper copy. It appears in many of the standard collections of Auden’s work, and is also included in some compilations of modern English poetry. Auden, of course, is a poet of significant stature, and so his work is likely to be found in just about any public or academic library.
By the way, he was also an Anglican and active in his faith, so this cycle is coming out of a place of very real engagement with the theological and spiritual food of these seasons. Among others, he credits C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams with helping him to relocate himself in the church during his adult life.
If you do decide to give this a go, here is a simple scheme for reading the oratorio over the seasons, which more or less directly follows Auden’s own flow.
Advent 1 – ADVENT
Advent 2 – THE ANNUNCIATION
Advent 3 – THE TEMPTATION OF ST. JOSEPH
Advent 4 – THE SUMMONS
Christmas Eve/Christmas Day – THE VISION OF THE SHEPHERDS and AT THE MANGER
During the 12 days of Christmas – THE MEDITATION OF SIMEON and THE MASSACRE OF THE INNOCENTS
Epiphany, January 6 – THE FLIGHT INTO EGYPTHe 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.