Auden's Horae Canonicae: The Sacrificed One's Triumph & Our Contrition

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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:
  1. Prime  (6 am)   [Birth, Creation and Fall]
  2. Terce  (9 am)   [Going Forth into the City}
  3. Sext  (Noon)   [Elements of the City]
  4. Nones  (3 pm)   [Work in the City]
  5. Vespers (6 pm)   [Visions of the Restored City]
  6. Compline (9 pm)   [Death, Last Judgment]
  7. 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.

I. Prime

"Then there’s a general theological problem which interests me and has for some time—to 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 action—and 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."

II. Terce

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."

III. Sext

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.

IV. Nones

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."

V. Vespers

"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 our peace.""

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.

VI. Compline

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.

VII. Lauds

Lauds is a benediction that calls for a blessing on both the organic, cyclical world and the temporal, historical world.


  1. Why does Auden set these poems within the structure of the monastic, canonical hours?

  2. Why do the poems focus so little on the actual sacrifice of Christ?

  3. What is the relationship between the elements of the city/civilization and that of Christ's sacrifice?

  4. Why does Auden include a meditation on Arcadia vs. Utopia?  Does this belong in the larger poem?  Why or why not?

  5. How does Auden play off the times of the day in these poems?  What is his purpose in doing so?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding