|Auden's Horae Canonicae, or the Canonical
Hours, follows the pattern of the monastic hours of prayer, which are also identified with
certain typical patterns:
- Prime (6 am) [Birth, Creation and Fall]
- Terce (9 am) [Going Forth into the City}
- Sext (Noon) [Elements of the City]
- Nones (3 pm) [Work in the City]
- Vespers (6 pm) [Visions of the Restored City]
- Compline (9 pm) [Death, Last Judgment]
- Lauds (3 am) [Benediction]
The events are set on Good Friday, the day of Christ's crucifixion.
We follow the typical reactions of people on what the speaker tries to deny is
anything other than another ordinary day. But the knowledge of "the
sacrifice" begins to more and more haunt the scene. The Horae Canonicae are
poems about the world and its guilt before the cross, yet the collection opens with the
Latin tag, "Immolatus vicerit" (sacrificed, he will be victorious),
which reminds us of Christ's ultimate triumph even amidst human blindness.
"Then theres a general theological
problem which interests me and has for some timeto what extent we have any kind of
recollection, or imagination, or institution of what life was like before the Fall. Now
since the Fall is a condition of human history
it seems to me we cannot imagine an
unfallen action, but only the state preceding actionand action, of course, includes
not only the physical action, but the actual intention of the will. And that, you see,
began to link up with the business of waking up."
Prime describes the awakening consciousness of
the speaker and compares it to the original Adamic consciousness that first becomes
self-aware in Being. The world is "my accomplice now/ My assassin to be," for
the speaker is part of the lying, corrupt city which looks to Christ's sacrifice,
"the dying/ Which the coming day will ask."
With Terce, we observe three individuals
preparing for the day-- a hangman, a judge, and a poet, each respectively concerned with
matters of justice, law, and truth. This is a world where "the Big Ones,"
the political powers, aren't noticing the average person who is concerned with daily
mundane wishes (like prayers to the self) for peace at the office or something funny or
lucky. Only Christ, "our victim," knows that our prayers will be answered
and the machine of the state will function well and that we will have an uneventful,
therefore, "good Friday."
Sext is divided into three part. The first
section deals with the theme of vocation and offers genuine admiration for those agents
who accomplish matters and offer humanity a real shape and purpose above the purely
animal. The second section addresses those who have the authority to make judgments
of a judicial, political, or aesthetic nature. These, too, if a little more
intimidating, are nonetheless necessary to our culture. (Of course, those who make
and those who judge and command are also those who make the sacrifice of Christ possible.)
The third section offers a picture of the crowd, which doesn't see and accepts all
The crowd is united because it worships Satan, "the Prince of this world" on the
hill of Golgotha.
The central poem of the collection, Nones,
focuses on the time following Christ's death on the cross. The speaker is surprised by how
quickly Christ's sacrifice is over, how quickly the crowd disperses and returns to daily
business. The body of Christ is only too revealing of our efforts to control matters in
small ways (e.g gardens, stamp collections, etc.). Now, no matter what we do in this world
of mock play and tryst, we will be haunted by his death. We have time to try and
symbolize/ignore what has happened, but "[s]ooner than we would choose" judgment
is coming for us and our demonic, eroticized world. The last two stanzas of the poem
look at the division between our wills and our body ("our Double"). Our
wills may seek to avoid responsibility, but our bodies will nonetheless be "awed/ By
death like all the creatures."
"Though it is possible for the same
individual to imagine both, it is unlikely that his interest in both will be equal and I
suspect that between the Arcadian whose favorite daydream is Eden, and the Utopian whose
favorite daydream is of New Jerusalem there is a characterological gulf [. . .} In their
relation to the actual fallen world, the difference between Eden and New Jerusalem is a
temporal one. Eden is a past world in which the contradictions of the present world have
not yet arisen; New Jerusalem is a future world in which they have at last been resolved.
Eden is a place where its inhabitants may do whatever they like to do; the motto over its
gate is, "Do what thou wilt is here there Law." New Jerusalem is a place where
its inhabitants like to do whatever they ought to do, and its motto is "In His will
Vespers compares and contrast the differing
visions of Arcadia/Eden, a return to a pure past, and the New Jerusalem/Utopia, a promise
of a perfect state. Our visions for both are founded on the "Sin Offering," the
sacrifice that upholds the secular state. Both visions, therefore, point to a
reality in Christ.
Compline is a poem of contrition.
Preparing for sleep and looking back over the day in despair, the speaker cannot no longer
avoid what has happened, his heart "confessing her part." The speaker
prays for himself and dear C to have true knowledge of the crucifixion, to "come to
the picnic" of heaven, and to join in the perichoresis, the divine life and
love of the Trinity.
Lauds is a benediction that calls for a
blessing on both the organic, cyclical world and the temporal, historical world.
Why does Auden set these poems within the structure
of the monastic, canonical hours?
Why do the poems focus so little on the actual
sacrifice of Christ?
What is the relationship between the elements of the
city/civilization and that of Christ's sacrifice?
Why does Auden include a meditation on Arcadia vs.
Utopia? Does this belong in the larger poem? Why or why not?
How does Auden play off the times of the day in these
poems? What is his purpose in doing so?