Saturday, December 23, 2006

For the Time Being

by W. H. Auden

Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood
Of conscious evil runs a lost mankind,
Dreading to find its Father lest it find
The Goodness it has dreaded is not good:
Alone, alone, about our dreadful wood.

Where is that Law for which we broke our own,
Where now that Justice for which Flesh resigned
Her hereditary right to passion, Mind
His will to absolute power? Gone. Gone.
Where is that Law for which we broke our own?

The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.
Was it to meet such grinning evidence
We left our richly odoured ignorance?
Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

We who must die demand a miracle.
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.

* * *

I came across this poem in the back of my mother's prayer book, and was rather struck with it. It's awfully paradoxical, but I think that's why I like it.

The first stanza is fairly simple. Man is lost in the knowledge of evil, and is so surrounded by it he begins to wonder if God might be evil too. He is too afraid to seek the Father, and is stuck alone.

The second stanza is brimfull of paradox. It's looking back to the time when we had faith: we broke the law of man for the Law of God; we denied our flesh's passion and our mind's freedom for Justice. But faith, the Law and the Justice of God, are gone. We are separated from them.

The third stanza shows despair. This is when I think it becomes clearer that the poem deals with man before the coming of Christ. We tried, the poem says, but it didn't work. We tried following God and here we are stuck in the forest, so conscious of our own sin we are afraid of Him. The old Law was so demanding that it was impossible to follow, so it only led to despair when man found he could not live up to it.

The fourth stanza shows the answer: only a miracle will save us. But we know, looking back from after the birth of Christ, that this miracle will happen. Of course it's impossible for the Infinite to become finite -- but nothing possible can save us. We need a miracle.

And we received a miracle: God became man, and no amount of familiarity with the old Christmas story can really blunt the shock of the miracle. God came through and gave us an impossible thing to save us.


Leah said...

"Nothing can save us that is possible."

Very awesome. I've never read this before, but have really liked the half dozen or so poems of Auden's I've read.

Nice commentary, btw. :-)

M. Swaim said...

I read Auden's Christmas Oratorio every Advent. You should check out his section on Herod.