Sunday, April 12, 2009

`What We Know Not to Be Possible'

In his commonplace book A Certain World (1970), W.H. Auden writes:

“Christmas and Easter can be subjects for poetry, but Good Friday, like Auschwitz, cannot. The reality is so horrible, it is not surprising that people should have found it a stumbling block to faith.”

Despite the severe reasonableness of this statement, Auden had already written some 20 years earlier a great poem devoted to Good Friday and the mundane human realities surrounding the Crucifixion. “Nones” is the fourth of the seven-part “Horiae Canonicae,” written between 1949 and 1954. The overall title refers to the canonical hours of the day when specific prayers are said, and Auden’s section titles refer to these offices: “Prime,” “Terce,” “Sext,” “Nones,” “Vespers,” “Compline,” and “Lauds.” One needn’t be a Christian or any sort of believer to find the poems beautiful and moving. Here is the opening of “Nones”:

“What we know to be not possible,
Though time after time foretold
By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil
Gibbering in their trances,
Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme
Like will and kill, comes to pass
Before we realize it: we are surprised
At the ease and speed of our deed
And uneasy: It is barely three,
Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
Of our sacrifice is already
Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
For silence so sudden and so soon;
The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
What shall we do till nightfall?”

Auden was a devout if idiosyncratic Christian who had returned to the faith of his childhood while in his thirties. That he proscribed Good Friday poetry while writing it (see also George Herbert’s “The Sacrifice” and Geoffrey Hill’s “Canticle for Good Friday”) is no surprise to seasoned readers of Auden’s work and life. Arthur Kirsch, in Auden and Christianity, cites a passage from draft notes the poet left on religion and theology:

“To-day, we find Good Friday easy to accept: what scandalizes us is Easter: Modern man finds a happy ending, a final victory of Love over the Prince of this World, very hard to swallow.”

Finding Good Friday “easy to accept” is a terrible indictment, one already identified and described in “Nones”: “we are surprised / At the ease and speed of our deed.” Later in the same poem he writes: “The hangman has gone to wash, the soldiers to eat; / We are left alone with our feat.”

As a reluctant nonbeliever, I find the oblivious double-dealing of the poem’s speaker absolutely convincing. Evil can be weak and acquiescing, as well as savage with all the Hollywood trappings:

“Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves,
The shops will re-open at four,
The empty blue bus in the empty pink square
Fill up and depart: we have time
To misrepresent, excuse, deny,
Mythify, use this event
While, under a hotel bed, in prison,
Down wrong turnings, its meaning
Waits for our lives…”

Kirsch quotes a letter to Clement Greenberg in which Auden says faith is the opposite of “a withdrawal from the world.”

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