Auden wrote a mountain

Every year I climb a mountain of a poem, getting, each year, a step or two closer to the top. If it has a top. It is W. H. Auden’s, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. We read it again last night.

My wife, Marilyn, and I were invited to the home of a friend of a friend one January night auden 3somewhere around 1990. We were going to read a poem by Auden. I thought, but didn’t say aloud, “Who’s Auden?” The evening was glorious. I had never heard such highbrow and lowbrow diction together and they didn’t just coexist; they caroused! We waited for an invitation for the next year, but this wasn’t something, it turned out, that was done every year. That is when we started giving the party ourselves. [1]

Marilyn and I had an Auden reading every year thereafter. We held it as near Epiphany as the availability of weekend evenings allowed. When Marilyn died in the summer of 2003, I determined to do it myself that year (that would be January of 2004). I did it myself the next year as well, January 8, 2005. I found it was a lot of work to do by myself, but I was proud that I could do it. I didn’t know that twenty days later, I would meet Bette and that we would plan the 2006 party together. [2]

We had, last night, as good a reading as any I remember. The room was full of competent readers. They were also engaged in the poem, even those reading it for the first time. It is our practice to pause after each of the first eight sections and share observations about what we have just read. Those times stretched on and no one seemed to mind until the end of the evening, when the host noted that it was well past his bedtime—given that Bette and I still had some cleaning up to do.

I keep reading Auden although mostly, I don’t understand him. It’s a systemic problem and I am sure it will never be solved. I don’t understand Auden because Auden builds on Kierkegaard and I don’t understand Kierkegaard. Nevertheless, I do not experience the evening as a frustration because there are so many other kinds of pleasures, simple pleasures, that Auden offers.

But the one I want to use as my example here is a technique that I call “inversion.” I’m sure it has a proper name, but I don’t know what it is. Auden uses this technique in ways that just make my heart soar. Apparently, I don’t need to understand it to be moved by it. The Virgin Mary, for instance, responds to Gabriel’s announcement by saying:

My flesh in terror and fire
Rejoices that the Word
Who utters the world out of nothing,
As a pledge of His word to love her
Against her will, and to turn
Her desperate longing to love,
Should ask to wear me,
From now to their wedding day,
For an engagement ring.

The inversion I see can be extracted like this: “that the Word, who utters the world out of nothing…should ask to wear me…for an engagement ring.”

auden 2God has pledged, Mary says, to love the world and to turn “her desperate longing [into] love and to join with the world in a covenant so strong and so intimate that it can only be compared to a marriage and, Mary says, God wants to wear me until that day, as a pledge of His intention to achieve [3] that ultimate trust and love. Mary is the symbol of that intention as an engagement ring is the symbol of the groom’s promise to the bride.

I have found that passage hard to live with because I am so drawn to Mary and yet Mary is pointing beyond herself as a ring points beyond itself to an initiative and an acceptance, neither of which is directed at her. In this passage, “the world” is pallid and inaccessible; Mary is gloriously real. Yet focusing on Mary causes the whole narrative to crash. It is the reality of the relationship—God and the world—which is clearly offstage at this point, that is supposed to engage us.

Here is a second example from the last few lines of the poem.

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.

Seek God [He is the truth] in the Kingdom of Anxiety. That is where we live, but we are journeying and on our journey, we will come to a great city. This city as expected our return. What? It has expected our return for many years. What?

Again the inversion. Auden gives us the by now familiar project of seeking God, who is the auden 1Truth. That is, presumably, what “the journey” is about. But that is not what happens. The major actor in this little verse is the city. Possibly “the City.” We used to live there. We left it and it has mourned the loss of us so much that now, seeing us return, having refused to give up the hope that we will return, it celebrates our return as the father celebrated the return of the Prodigal.

As in the case of Mary, we are drawn to the focal figure. We are seeking God, who is the Truth. But all the action is somewhere else; that’s what I am calling an “inversion.” We lived, once, in this city. We loved it and it loved us. We left and it mourned but it never gave up hope. Always, there were watchmen on the walls scanning the horizon hoping for a first view of our return. And now we are back, and the confetti is being prepared and possibly a fatted calf.

The technique amazes me. And I fall for it every year. I love it.

[1] The one thing you know about a party you are giving is that you will be invited to it.
[2] Sometimes, if you hold out long enough, the calvary comes.
[3] Theologically, to “restore.”

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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