Today the page proofs arrived from Princeton University Press for my critical edition of W. H. Auden’s long poem For the Time Being: a Christmas Oratorio. It’s obviously an opportune time for me to be looking again at this remarkable poem, and I may have a few things to say about it as Christmas draws nearer. For now, just one comment:

When Auden was nearly finished with the poem, he sent a typescript of it to his father, a learned physician named George Augustus Auden (who, by the way, deserves more scholarly attention in his own right than he has ever received — he was a remarkable man). The elder Auden found the poem baffling: it was a retelling of the Nativity narrative, so why at the beginning is there a clock over the mantelpiece? Why does Joseph say “My trousers were cleaned and pressed”? Why does Herod complain that throughout his kingdom “there isn’t a single town where a good bookshop would pay”? Auden replied,

Sorry you are puzzled by the oratorio. Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental — the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised-Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity — that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity — and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (see Marcus Aurelius.)…

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been “humanized,” and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery picture of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.

If a return to the older method now seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization — there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

Auden is of course right — he’s almost always right — and it’s worth thinking about how a culture’s understanding of Christianity changes when the events described in the Bible become purely historical, things that happened but no longer happen.

Stanley Spencer was an English painter from the generation before Auden, and he wrestled with many of the same questions. If painters of the Italian Renaissance could portray Biblical scenes happening in a Tuscan landscape, why couldn’t a man from Cookham do the same? So many of Spencer’s paintings, starting from early in his career, set biblical scenes in Cookham. The picture above is his rendering of the Betrayal of Christ (1922–1923), now held by the National Museums of Norther Ireland. You can see nearly two hundred of Spencer’s paintings here.