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Auden's For the Time Being--The Word Made Flesh & The World in Darkness

W. H. Auden's For the Time Being is both a religious and moral comedy, which was intended as the text for a Christmas oratorio--an impossibly long, and therefore unperformable, oratorio, as the composer Benjamin Britten pointed out to him.  It is nonetheless a work endowed with a dramatic and ritualistic sensibility.  It unfolds around the major Christmas events, including the preparation of advent and the annunciation to Mary, as well as Herod's massacre of the innocents and the holy family's flight into Egypt.  The poem operates out of an extensive comparison between the world of the first-century Roman Empire and the twentieth-century.   Their world is much like ours, and Auden is willing to play with such a connection by, for example, making Herod a liberal humanist or Simeon a modern theologian.  The shepherds are the voice of the poor, working-class, and the three kings are a scientist, a philosopher, and a sociologist.  Auden is also willing to include more abstract drama, such as the annunciation being divided between the psychological faculties of intuition, feeling, sensation, and thought. 

The oratorio in particular focuses on the state of the world in normal, fallen time (chronos) as compared to the inbreaking into the fallen world of God's kairos purpose in Christ's incarnation. A large portion of the poem is given over to the conditions of the present world and why they must fail first in order to receive the good news of Love in Christ's birth.  Auden touches on various political, philosophical and scientific, domestic, romantic, economic, and psychological conditions and how they are impacted by the news of the birth of Christ.


I. Advent

(I) The conditions of the world in need of the Incarnation--a world that has lost its political vision and will and has descended into "a wild passion" of destruction. 

(II) It is a world of normality which has suddenly been opened to something "outrageous" (the incarnation.)  It is a world subject to a despairing void, which is God's judgement.

(III) Humanity doubts if anything eternal can enter our time-bound/condemned world.

(IV) A set of spiritual paradoxes. Only a condition of complete emptiness will prepare us for the answer.

(V) Humanity is distinct in many ways from the rest of the animal and vegetable world.  How can humans wait without slipping into various idolatries and philosophies that promise meaning and wisdom?

II. The Annunciation

(I) The four Jungian faculties, intuition, feeling, sensation, and thought, are introduced as sources of either "death or salvation" because they reveal what happens in the garden (where Gabriel will meet Mary).

(II) The four faculties now attempt to understand the garden, and each fails in its own way.

(III) Gabriel first encounters Mary in a child-like dream-state of love, which Gabriel promises will no longer be just a dream.  Mary is to reverse the poor choices of Eve and Adam by her consent to God's purpose, who has also chosen her.

(IV) Various groups rejoice, for the incarnation will answer them in their need.

III. The Temptation of St. Joseph

(I) Joseph is made fun of by the neighborhood for his supposed cuckoldom, and in the midst of his doubts he is offered belief, rather than proof, to go on.

(II) Joseph must be passive and thereby (in a sense) pay for all the mistakes of masculine aggression and abuse of women.  Faith is choosing "what is difficult all one's days/ As if it were easy."

(III) The chorus asks that Joseph and Mary would pray for misguided lovers, children in their sin-nature, those who appear domestic but are full of hatred, and those children whose wills are already given over to sensualism.  Joseph and Mary are redeemers of the "Average Way."

IV. The Summons

(I) The Star represents an order that overturns normal channels of logic and knowledge with mystery and weakness.  The Wise men explore (in order) hard science, a philosophy of time, and a sociology of utilitarianism as ways to understand this order, but each fails. The Star recommends an answer of faith against the horror of the age.

(II) The political praise of Caesar is set against the census of the empire.

(III) The (mock) praise of Caesar as having conquered the seven kingdoms of philosophy, physics, mathematics, economics, technology, medicine, and psychology.

(IV) The false claims of human progress are set off against Auden's own view of the kingdom of heaven in the fullness of time.

(V) A prayer by the chorale reminds us that our weakness persuades us of the Father's being, love, and strength.

V. The Vision of the Shepherds

(I) The shepherds reflect the problems of the working-class who are there to keep the "mechanism" going, but can never strike without being hurt or arrested.  They know that something must happen.

(II) The shepherds entertain suicidal thoughts and wonder who is the one who will make life worth living.

(III) The Angelic chorus announces to them that love has been revealed--to which they purpose to run.

VI. At the Manger

(I) Mary's lullaby points to the world's sorrow and anxiety, as well as Christ's future death and sacrifice.

(II) The wise men and shepherds arrive bringing their burdens and difficulties to be overcome by Love.

(III) They sing of what Love can do--overcome their misguided attempts at self-deception and self-hatred, offering instead a true I-Thou relationship.

VII. The Meditation of Simeon

speeches 1-3: All other options must be exhausted; if "the Fall had not occurred in fact,"  "had occurred by necessity," or "had occurred by accident" then humanity gets off.

speeches 4-6: All the philosophical options had to be exhausted, too--no option of the one and the many, no objective-subjective problem, no psychological option.

speech 7: In order for the Word had to be made flesh, humanity had to reach a condition of absolute despair.

speeches 8-10: What has always been implicit and feared in the I AM of God is now made clear to us in the THOU ART of the incarnation. (cf. John 1:1-14) Christ's birth gives meaning to all other events.  In him freedom and necessity are clarified.

speeches 11-13: Because of the incarnation, art and imagination are given direction and meaning.  Because of the incarnation, reason is redeemed and science made meaningful. Because of the incarnation, we no longer have to pursue salvation but surrender to God's action.

[Click here for a more extensive outline of Simeon's meditation.]

VIII. The Massacre of the Innocents

(I) Herod is presented as the ultimate liberal humanist who, in defense of reason and the laws of enlightened civilization, believes he must resort to mass murder.

(II) A parody of the soldiers chorus in opera, the soldiers recount the story of George, a homosexual scoundrel, who is welcomed back into their corrupt ranks just in time to commit Herod's atrocity.

(III) Rachel weeps for her loss in this world.

IX. The Flight into Egypt

(I) Joseph and Mary enter a desert world of travel brochures and advertising banality.  Egypt's "safety" is a real danger to spiritual security.

(II) The holy family's flight to Egypt is seen as a reversal of the Exodus event.

(III) The narrator returns us to the present and the end of a modern family Christmas in the modern world of scientific causes and reasons. However, for"those who have seen/ The Child [. . .] The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all."  Still, "God will cheat no one," for all that he has promised will come to pass.

(IV) Praise of Christ as the Way, Truth, and Life and all that suggests.


  1. How would you characterize Auden's portrait of the modern world?   List some of its particular problems/limitations within the poem.
  2. What is the purpose/effect of Auden's mixture of humor and philosophy with the Christmas story?  Explain.
  3. Do you find the humor surrounding Joseph, the three wise men, and Herod to be effective?  Why or why not?
  4. Likewise, are Auden's "updates" of the Christmas story effective, such as the shepherds as the beleaguered working-class, Egypt as a banal, brochured world, or Caeser's empire as the modern world?
  5. According to the poem, how does the incarnation change the present world?  Do you agree?  Why or why not?
  6. Auden's poem was conceived as an oratorio.  Is it possible to imagine this work being performed? Why or why not?
  7. How does Auden's conception of love in this poem compare with his poems of desire?

"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