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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Countdown To Christmas: Patrick Kavanagh's Christmas Childhood

It is a poem born out of loneliness and solitude.  Kavanagh wrote it after spending another festive season alone in his bachelor flat in Dublin and the poem is infused with nostalgia for rural, farm-family life, recalled through the lens of Christmas.

The memories come dressed in christian imagery, from the story of genesis to the virgin birth.

The first section of the poem sets the scene. The adult Kavanagh recalls the “gay Garden that was childhood's”: the frosted potato-pits, the music coming from the paling-post, the heavenly light between ricks of hay and straw, the “December-glinting fruit” on an apple tree. In that Garden of Eden, the most commonplace event —  even “the tracks of cattle to a drinking-place [or] a green stone lying sideways in a ditch” — was invested with a sense of wonder and love, the “beauty that the world did not touch”.

“How wonderful!” says the poet now, longing to return to this creative consciousness that as adult, he can only rarely access now.

In the second part

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Tormentor Mentors

IN AUTUMN OF 1916, Iseult Gonne sent a long letter to her friend and mentor, WB Yeats, in which she referred to his recent critique of her writing: “I am most thankful to you for those criticisms you have made on my scribblings,” she wrote. “Yes, they are bad. I knew it all the while and I am glad of what you say about truth and beauty. I will try and put it into practice . . . but just now I am still too tired to work.”

Too tired to work. When I first came upon those words, as part of research I was doing into Gonne’s life, I felt like weeping. Yes, the writing she was doing at the time could sometimes be

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