Unpacking WH Auden’s “For the Time Being”

During this Christmas season, I’ve written meditations on one of my favorite literary works of all time:
WH Auden’s “For The Time Being.” (FTTB)

Here are links to each section.
Feel free to keep this page handy, for easy future reference.

Unpacking WH Auden’s “For the Time Being.”

Section One:ADVENT.”



Section Four:THE SUMMONS





These are long, dense, pieces on each chapter of this work, citing relevant sections, and will no doubt best enjoyed after you’ve read the work itself.

If you’re interested in the work, my sense is that the absolute best edition came out about a decade ago, from Alan Jacobs and Princeton University Press.
Get it here.
It’s a wonderful edition, and I’m so grateful for it. Alan Jacob‘s own “Introduction” has helped shaped, and flesh out, some of my thoughts. And for those of us who’ve long read this work every Christmas season, his “notes on the text” are a gold mine.

It’s hard to over-estimate just how important FTTB has been to my artistic and spiritual life for many decades now.

I read it almost every Christmas season. And every time, I learn something new and fascinating that I’ve missed before. It’s most definitely influenced many sermons.

I find it an important work because, as I like to say, I believe “Incarnational Theology” is vastly underappreciated in American/Western Christianity. It was through the story of Christmas…not the story of Lent/Easter…that Jesus’ story first “made sense” to me.
Or, as I like to say, theologically, “I am a Christmas Christian.”

But in recent years, the work speaks to me in new ways about our world today…
Auden wrote all of this, in the United States, and during the horrors of World War II, during a time of the fear of rising global facism.
We too, of course, in our time, face the increasing threat of global fascism, and existential threats to our democratic ideals and society. Therefore, in ways I couldn’t have fathomed when I opened the text for my first reading as a young man…these words feel more relavent than ever.

Auden wrote this poem as a well-read, intellectual artist who was nevertheless drawn back to his own Christian roots.
And, we too live in a time of much cultural despising of Christianity (for very good and well deserved reasons…) as the culture equates the faith with Christian Nationalsim/and/or Fundamentalism.
Auden’s work is, imho, something of a balm for that…and perhaps a work that many who are going through their own “decontructions” might still find as a way “in” to the Christmas story.

And, finally, Auden was a gay man, writing about Christian theology, in a time when most people didn’t imagine that possible. As an LGBTQ-affirming United Methodist pastor of many decades now, it seems like this work ought to be considered a classic of both queer art and theology.

My first CD of original songs, released in early 2001, was an homage to the work, and titled “Songs for the Time Being.” A direct referenced to this poem.

And one of my songs, “The Sun is Gonna Show,” specifically references the final section of FTTB, and that marvelous soliquy by the narrator…which, as I write in the essay, is my all-time favorite passage of verse.

The lyrics I wrote were:

“Oh they say that the Time Being’s our time now
And the poet says it’s the most trying, somehow.
God know he’s right, I believe it’s true
And there’s much more to come ’till we’re finally through.

So it’s one step forward, two from behind,
Standing at the hillside, ready to climb.
We bind our wounds, as the swords unsheath,
And we play our part in an enternal bequeath.
But out beyond the end…
And far behind the past…
Lie dreams that wake, as signs
Of a peace that ever lasts.”

This was my attempt to honor the “feel” of FTTB in terms of its acknowlege of both faith and the horrors of humanity as well…
The hope of the Christmas story… “and the “boredom” of each day in “The Time Being.”

Here’s a version of this song, where I read Auden’s original lines of verse and sing the song:

So, that’s a brief explanation of why I felt compelled to do all this obsessively long writing now.

Thanks for stopping by…and I hope these essays provide a helpful way to deeper your own enjoyment of this classic work.


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