Spending Time With Auden
By Travis Copeland
The progress of the year can seem gloomy, especially in winter, but this gives us a unique opportunity to "redeem the time."
The second week of the new year: Epiphany,* the feast following the twelve days of Christmas, has passed; January 13, the date marking the start of Oxford University’s “Hilary term,” is upon us. As the season of Christmas comes to a close, many of us settle into a mid-winter, post-holiday slump. The contrast of the dark chill of January with the radiance of Christmas forces man back into ordinary rhythms and sober responsibilities, almost forgotten since late November. The absence of lovely, incandescent trees and tables laden with feast and welcome company is a sharp contrast. And so the spirit of melancholy settles over society. Or as a seasoned teacher once told me: “I want to quit every January.”
Winter feasts throughout human history, such as our Christmas or the Roman Saturnalia, often centered around warming up the winter months. With the holiday’s end comes the inevitably chilly and somber return to everyday life. It’s not surprising, then, that people throughout time have found in winter a definite post-feast melancholy. No one has written more melodically on the time after Christmas than the British poet W. H. Auden. He was so struck by a low spirit following the feast in 1941—Britain’s second full year fighting Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the Second World War—that he wrote his famous poem “For the Time Being.” He laments dismantling “the Christmas tree / Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes / the holly and mistletoe must be taken down and burnt.” The symbols of joy having been removed from the living spaces, things begin to return to their ordinary state. We have
to love our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual vision and failed.
Christmas hopes, acknowledges Auden, remain unfulfilled: the ideal has been squashed by the real. His opening lines continue, “here we all are / Back in the moderate Aristotelian city,” and ultimately “The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.” In the heart of a war, in the bleak mid-winter, Auden captures the general English spirit in 1941; he also more deeply identifies with the melancholy that all people encounter, that feeling just after a candle has been snuffed in a dark room.
This is not the end of Auden’s musings. Lifting his head, Auden makes a thematic turn. Of course “There are bills to be paid,” but there is also “The Time Being to redeem.” This meditative time of darkness and sobriety does not drive Auden to despair: it turns his hand to the plow, to the labors and loves before him. Christmas and the melancholy that follows its close help Auden to see the world both as it is and as it ought to be.
Now, “The Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing”; it must work at joy. The answer to melancholy is work of rejoicing. Ora et labora is not only the law of the monastery but of all Christendom, for “God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.” The delights of Christmas will have their day.
For the time being, melancholy is good; it sobers men, giving them a clarity about their life and the world around, and it sets them to work, if we interpret and “use” it rightly. Melancholy can serve honorable ends. “It is better,” says King Solomon, “to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.” The house of mourning is a school. Auden sees the good that melancholy can do, and still he sees through the failure of Christmas feasting each year to a lasting future triumph of joy.
Therefore, when melancholy strikes after Christmastime, we should respond wisely, not impulsively. Seeing “Christmas blues” with Auden’s eyes will set us toward wisdom. If we only see the Good in the warmth of Christmas, we shall only be half-wise. Melancholy teaches; it illuminates; it clarifies the good pursuits of ordinary life. Without the post-Christmas slump, the coming year is in danger of being painted in chiaroscuro, giving us false expectations. We should not forget the truthfulness and beauty of Christmas, but neither should we be so naive as to worship our stomachs in the season after. Let us, while boxing the decorations back up again, remember with Auden that “God will cheat no one of their triumph.”
*Celebrated principally by Christians of “high” liturgical denominations, Epiphany (traditionally falling on 6th January) commemorates the visit of the Magi to the Holy Family in Bethlehem.
Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.
If you enjoyed this essay, check out some of our posts on the history of poetry and its role in the Great Conversation, or some of our profiles of accomplished poets who appear on our Author Bank, like Geoffrey Chaucer and John Donne.
Published on 11th January, 2023.