Countdown to Christmas: WH Auden's For The Time Being

WH Auden

This is a section from the most remarkable Christmas poem ever written, “For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”, by WH Auden. Composed in 1942, the darkest days from the British Allies perspective of World War II, the poem is 1500 lines long (more than 50 pages), a series of dramatic monologues spoken by the characters of the nativity story, in twentieth-century speech, as if the events were happening in that time.

It's a long parable, merging biblical and contemporary into an audacious display of metaphysical poetics underpinned by Anglican theology.


How could the Eternal do a temporal act,

The Infinite become a finite fact?

Nothing can save us that is possible:

We who must die demand a miracle.


The structure is held together with choruses and a narrator and, in the penultimate section, Christmas is over and its meaning pondered.

Auden's conclusion seems to be that

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Answering Back

One major inspiration of art and writing is… art and writing. I'm reading a brilliant anthology, creative intelligence sunny windowedited by Carol Ann Duffy, called Answering Back, with a simple, delightful concept: a living poet chooses a poem from the past that has touched them and writes a new poem in response.

It's a beautiful collection of calls and replies, echos and illuminations across centuries — and gives a vivid sense of how, through writing, language and human connection transcend time and place.

Here's a poem about art by WH Auden, chosen by Billy Collins and,

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