Saturday, January 5, 2013

Reading Auden for Christmas

I tend to look at blog stats too much, but I'm glad I did so recently when I noticed someone had clicked on Christmas Oratorio. What's that? I wondered, and found a post I'd done a year ago that was a poem by W.H. Auden that is fantastic. (It's reposted below.)

I did a little more digging and found it was one small snippet of a very long piece called For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. The plan was for Benjamin Britten to set it to music, which would have been fantastic except it probably would have taken days to perform. It's 37 pages of text in the edition of Collected Poems I checked out of the library, and covers from Advent to the Flight Into Egypt.

And it ends there, with the flight into Egypt. I hadn't thought about that, about how Christmas ends with a cliffhanger. The order of events gets so mixed up in the calendar, with the magi arriving tomorrow on Epiphany (in the church year), but the Slaughter of the Innocents, which happens after they leave, occurred a week ago on December 28.

And so, with Joseph and Mary and Jesus on the lam, and with the recitative immediately before beginning, "Fly, Holy Family, from our immediate rage," the next-to-last section begins with "Well, so that is that." So shocking, and so wonderful.

There are so many wonderful, shocking moments in this work. I haven't made my way through it all yet. I loved part II in the Temptation of Joseph section. Here's a little bit:
  For those delicious memories
Cigars and sips of brandy can restore
To old dried boys, for gallantry that scrawls
  In idolatrous detail and size
A symbol of aggression on toilet walls,
For having reasoned -- "Woman is naturally pure
since she has no moustache," for having said,
  "No woman has a business head,"
You must learn now that masculinity,
To nature, is a non-essential luxury.
And Herod's essay/proclamation on The Massacre of the Innocents is incredible.

But the whole thing is. It's worth savoring. It gave me so much to think about in a deep Christmas mode, far past the manger. I can see this is a work I will have to revisit when Advent rolls around.

The oratorio ends with this text, which is in the Episcopal hymnal and have never heard sung. It makes much more sense in its original context.

He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
October 1941-July 1942

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