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…
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.
From W.H. Auden’s For the Time Being.
My aunt, the artist Mary McCleary, inscribed the above chorus on the letter she gave me the day I graduated from college. That card is now the centerpiece of the bulletin board above my desk. (Given how little time there is now for poetry, I can’t be too surprised that guests are yet to identify much less ask about the card. But then again, I wasn’t aware of the reference ’til I received the card from MM.)
The entirety of “For the Time Being” stretches over 1,400 lines. (For perspective: a few of Shakespeare’s plays are less than 2,000 lines.) I can’t find the full text online, but if anyone knows where I can, please send a link to my email or drop it in the comments area.*
From a technical standpoint, the above section is a sterling example of what postmodernism can do so long as it has a substantive core and also wears itself lightly. That may sound simple in principle; in practice, it’s not. Like much of Auden’s work, the subversion of classical form here does not signal a disregard for traditional ideas. The free verse is flecked with obvious nods to scripture (“lead us into temptation”) — nods which, like a photographer’s macrographic study, expose otherwise unseen parts of a whole we had gotten used to identifying by rote. Moreover, with the chorus — especially that fantastic phrase “Kingdom of Anxiety” — there is a redressing of old ideas which cloaks them in modern clothes. After all, who had anxiety in the first century?
As the verses clearly indicate, “For the Time Being” is a poem about the holidays. These words, and in particular the line I misremembered as “the time being redeemed of insignificance,” were rattling around my head throughout quieter moments at my family’s Thanksgiving. And although they work especially well as a panacea for post-holiday melancholy, they may get more mental mileage if you are reminded of them before the official Christmas week kicks off.
The pictures are of Auden, a man who once said that his face looked like a wedding cake left out in the rain.
*Again the brilliant Ted Rey has come through and found an archived full text of “For the Time Being”. As always, thank you, Ted.