In 1941-42, amidst the horrors of World War II, W. H. Auden (1907-1973) wrote his poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Writer Alexander McCall Smith recently stated, “Most of us want to lead a good life— however that is defined. Auden wanted that too, and the solution he found might help us today.” In that spirit, we can look at Auden’s 60-plus-pages Christmas poem for insights that will help us overcome any post-holiday blahs and get the New Year off to a good start.
Auden was born in England and brought up an Anglican, but as a young man he turned his back on religion. After coming to the United States in 1939, however, he soon returned to his Christian faith, and his Christmas poem reflects this return. It describes events from those leading up to the birth of Jesus until the Holy Family’s flight with the infant into Egypt. But it does so by placing his characters in a jumbled time, partly past and partly present—“If, on account of the political situation [WWII], / There are quite a number of homes without roofs, and men / Lying about in the countryside neither drunk nor asleep”—and he provides them with modern sensibilities. Joseph, for example, says:
My shoes were shined, my pants were
cleaned and pressed,
And I was hurrying to meet
My own true Love . . .
And a Chorus keeps plaguing Joseph with doubts about how Mary got pregnant:
Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so.
Is it likely? No.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Mary may be pure,
But, Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance . . . Well . . .
Shortly before the end of the poem we find a section about the post-Christmas blahs. It begins,
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 [Christ] 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. . . .
Now, the poem continues, there is the post-holiday letdown, back to the 9 to 5 routine—“we had forgotten \ The office was as depressing as this . . . . .
. . . 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. . . .
So what is to keep us going? How are we to redeem our lives from the insignificance Auden mentions? A short answer might be what the Chorus proclaims in the last lines of the poem: Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. But Auden was no narrow, conservative Christian. As I have pointed out in an earlier essay, he believed that God spoke through “great prophets” such as “Voltaire, Marx, Freud, [and] Nietzsche, [who] have been actively hostile to Christianity.” He also had a positive view of various non-Christian sources, including some from Taoism, Islam, and Judaism, and he stated that “every other religion was a revelation, partial or distorted but real.” Thus, the wisdom contained in his “Christmas Oratorio” is not just for Christians. It speaks to all humans.
Among the many meaningful passages in the poem, we’ll focus on just a few, mainly dealing with the Three Wise Men who follow the star to Bethlehem to see the infant Jesus. Collectively, they say
At least we know for certain that we are three old sinners,
That this journey is much too long, that we want our dinners,
And miss our wives, our books, our dogs,
But have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are.
To discover how to be human now
Is the reason we follow this star.
They are thus seekers of truth and wisdom, and they are humble. The Third Wise man confesses that his learned philosophizing—reflecting the Utilitarian philosophy of seeking “the greatest amount of good for the greatest number”—was not enough.
But arriving at the Greatest Good by introspection
And counting the Greater Number, left no time for affection,
Laughter, kisses, squeezing, smiles:
And I learned why the learned are as despised as they are.
To discover how to be loving now
Is the reason I follow this star.
And after arriving at the manger where Jesus is born the Wise Men say,
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Love is more serious than Philosophy
Who sees no humour in her observation
That Truth is knowing that we know we lie.
Truth, wisdom, humility, love, humor—these are five values that are important to the Wise Men—and to Auden. And if we value them as they did, we can minimize any post-holiday blues and “redeem from insignificance” our everyday lives.
Like the Three Wise Men, wise people today are truth-seekers. But in this partisan, polemical, blogging age of ours, how many of us are primarily concerned with seeking truth? Are, for example, global-warming deniers?
For us members of the chattering class, self-proclaimed intellectuals, writers of liberal or progressive opinion pieces, Auden helps us understand “why the learned are as despised as they are,” and “[t]hat Truth is knowing that we know we lie.”
For us members of the chattering class, self-proclaimed intellectuals, writers of liberal or progressive opinion pieces, Auden helps us understand “why the learned are as despised as they are,” and “[t]hat Truth is knowing that we know we lie.” He even has King Herod, who massacred innocent children hoping to kill the infant Jesus, proclaim “I'm a liberal. I want every-one to be happy.”
He says this at the end of a Herod soliloquy, where Auden takes artistic liberties regarding the Biblical passage where the Wise Men fail to comply with Herod’s request to inform him after they have discovered the whereabouts of the new-born Jesus. Auden’s version has them telling Herod, “God has been born . . . we have seen him ourselves. The World is saved. Nothing else matters.” Herod objects,
If this rumour is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn't have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.
Reason will be replaced by Revelation. Instead of Rational Law, objective truths perceptible to any who will undergo the necessary intellectual discipline, and the same for all, Knowledge will degenerate into a riot of subjective visions feelings in the solar plexus. . . .
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilisation always has to call in these professional tidiers to whom it is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate.
Of course, Auden’s “liberal” Herod is a special type of liberal: one that is overconfident of his ability to discover truth by Reason alone. We think of some of the “best-and-brightest” advisers of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson who escalated the Vietnam war. To Auden, reason is only one path to truth—there is also, for example, poetic truth—and “Love is more serious than Philosophy.”
Auden’s Herod reminds us of the “smart and well educated people” that psychologist Robert Sternberg has argued are unwise because of four fallacies, all of which are tied up with too big an ego and with overestimating one's own powers. There are many shameful reasons for U.S. anti-intellectualism, but when intellectuals are arrogant they bring upon themselves being “as despised as they are.” Wisdom involves more than brains. As Sternberg adds, “people are wise to the extent that they use their intelligence to seek a common good.” We seek that good if we love our fellow human beings. Elsewhere, I have maintained that love is the greatest wisdom virtue, and Auden’s Third Wise Man follows the star to Bethlehem to “discover how to be loving now.”
Love and wisdom involve a type of humility that the Three Wise Men possess: “[W]e know for certain that we are three old sinners. . . [and] have only the vaguest idea why we are what we are. . . . Truth is knowing that we know we lie.” They realize that none of us humans have all the answers and that even when we think we are speaking the truth, we are only approximating it—if we are lucky
Auden also realized that humility was linked to humor. In an insightful article in The Christian Century (February 24, 1982), ethicist William French stressed the significance of humor in Auden’s Christian poem. He wrote that for Auden “comedy then is not simply for laughs. Rather it is an instrument whereby he punctures our pretension and self-deception . . . . We are neither pure nor perfect, and we can wreak havoc when we attempt to soar too far above ourselves. When he jokes about the bumbling wise men or the bourgeois Joseph, Auden laughs at those traits in himself and teaches us that it is necessary to laugh at ourselves, too.”
Auden shared the viewpoint of his friend theologian Reinhold Niebuhr who wrote that a sense of humour is even more important provisionally in dealing with our own sins than in dealing with the sins of others. Humour is a proof of the capacity of the self to gain a vantage point from which it is able to look at itself. . . . People with a sense of humour do not take themselves too seriously. They are able to "stand off" from themselves, see themselves in perspective, and recognize the ludicrous and absurd aspects of their pretensions.
Thus, following the example of the Three Wise Men, we can start the new year by being more ardent seekers of truth and wisdom. We can try to love better, and we can be humble about our own knowledge and capabilities. Realizing that like all humans we can sometimes be ludicrous, we can be as willing to laugh, good-humoredly, at ourselves as at others. By acting in these ways we can, as Auden suggests, help redeem our lives “from insignificance.”
Walter G. Moss