Lenten Devotional: W. H. Auden’s Horae Canonicae

by Joel Dodson

For the past several years, I’ve found myself returning to W. H. Auden’s Horae Canonicae during Lent. Auden’s poem was written in stages between 1947 and 1954, after the British writer had settled in Manhattan (where he attended services at St. Mark’s-in-the-Bowery, sitting quietly, so fellow parishioners later reminisced, in the back pews). It’s a long and difficult poem, and, like Auden’s later work, deeply philosophical. But its theme is remarkably simple: how we replay the Passion each day in our working lives, from waking to sleep, a pattern that Auden explores by structuring his poem on the canonical hours – “Prime,” “Terce,” “Sext,” “Nones,” “Vespers,” “Compline,” “Lauds.”

This theme hits home for me especially this Lent, as the repetition of daily life in this second year of the pandemic has grown ever more tedious. At home, before the computer, facing the same walls and clothes and food: each day forces us to look more squarely at our bodily quirks and habits than ever before, and, just as easily, to forget them. The first part of Auden’s poem, “Prime,” captures this feeling of encountering one’s bodily rhythms. It begins with the fleeting instant we all have upon waking, after our eyes open but before we have thrown off the covers: 

Simultaneously, as soundlessly,
  Spontaneously, suddenly
As, at the vaunt of the dawn, the kind
  Gates of the body fly open […]
Recalled from the shades to be a seeing being
  From absence to be on display,
Without a name or history I wake
  Between my body and the day.

Auden’s verse characterizes these moments in the next line as “holy,” before we have ever moved an arm, spoken a harsh word, or opened an email. But those waking minutes of tranquility, prior to the day’s temptations, also come, Auden suggests, with a sense of foreboding: “Afraid of our living task, the dying / Which the coming day will ask.” 

Maybe our work or studies or the dreariness of Zoom do not feel quite like a “dying.” (Or, if you are writing a lengthy dissertation or term paper, maybe it does.) But in its subsequent “hours,” Horae Canonicae invites us to see in even our most consuming daily tasks – when we are really focused on the work at hand, when we betray, as Auden puts it, “that eye-on-the-object look” – a yearning that leads inevitably to the cross. Earlier works like the medieval mystery plays or Caravaggio’s “Crucifixion of St. Peter” also remind us that it takes a city of faithful artisans and laborers and line managers, going about their daily business, for a crucifixion. But after the afternoon nap or coffee has worn off, those eager hands that may have just been doing something destructive or productive slip into forgetfulness. What did I do today? Is it really getting on toward dinner? Was today any different than the day before? 

What I like about Auden’s poem is that it plops us into the middle of those everyday feelings and finds in them the sensations of Lent. In the poem’s most powerful sections, “Nones” and “Compline,” Auden traces our late afternoon musings to the other side of the Passion, when, somewhere between the lull of siesta and the end of the working day, we cannot remember exactly “what happened to us from noon till three,” which is also the traditional hour of Christ’s death: 

                                                    Not one
Of these who in the shade of walls and trees
  Lie sprawled now, calmly sleeping,
Harmless as sheep, can remember why
  He shouted or what about
So loudly in the sunshine this morning;
  All if challenged would reply
–- “It was a monster with one red eye,
  A crowd that saw him die, not I.” –-
The hangman has gone to wash, the soldiers to eat:
  We are left alone with our feat.

In his journals of 1947-8, Auden had been trying to draw an elaborate chart of parallels between the hours of Christ’s suffering, the divine offices, and the history of political and social revolution. In 2021, this strange exercise of a modernist poet writing and praying in the wake of World War II somehow makes more sense to me. Did I, while fiddling with Zoom this past year or washing my hands, miss the revolution? Or have these daily rhythms, perhaps, revealed in me the need for a love and sacrifice that was always more revolutionary than I imagined? (What, indeed, happened between noon and three?)  

Part of the journey of repentance and renewal in Lent is this movement from memory to anticipation. Auden’s poem – which toys at the margins of the sacred and secular – is hardly an inspiration or tool to devotion. But it is a companion on the way, a poem, like many others, there to hand. In its portrayal of the daily offices, Horae Canonicae ends where it logically should begin, with “Lauds” and the singing of birds, before a new day dawns. But its most lasting image is the closing lines of “Compline,” where Auden imagines another day when “poets,” “men in television,” and all us “poor s-o-b’s” who labor and work will be “shaken awake” by a very different kind of daily rhythm: by the perichoresis or eternal dance of the triune God, whose object is not today’s tasks – done well or poorly – but the “abiding tree.” 

       * * *

Compline (from Horae Canonicae)

by W. H. Auden

Now, as desire and the things desired
Cease to require attention,
As, seizing its chance, the body escapes,
Section by section, to join
Plants in their chaster peace which is more
To its real taste, now a day is its past,
Its last deed and feeling in, should come
The instant of recollection
When the whole thing makes sense: it comes, but all
I recall are doors banging,
Two housewives scolding, an old man gobbling
A child’s wild look of envy,
Actions, words, that could fit any tale,
And I fail to see either plot
Or meaning; I cannot remember
A thing between noon and three.

Nothing is with me now but a sound,
A heart’s rhythm, a sense of stars
Leisurely walking around, and both
Talk a language of motion
I can measure but not read: maybe
My heart is confessing her part
In what happened to us from noon till three,
That constellations indeed
Sing of some hilarity beyond
All liking and happening,
But, knowing I neither know what they know
Nor what I ought to know, scorning
All vain fornications of fancy,
Now let me, blessing them both
For the sweetness of their cassations,
Accept our separations.

A stride from now will take me into dream,
Leave me, without a status,
Among its unwashed tribes of wishes
Who have no dances and no jokes
But a magic cult to propitiate
What happens from noon till three,
Odd rites which they hide from me – should I chance,
Say, on youths in an oak-wood
Insulting a white deer, bribes nor threats
Will get them to blab – and then
Past untruth is one step to nothing,
For the end, for me as for cities,
Is total absence: what comes to be
Must go back into non-being
For the sake of the equity, the rhythm
Past measure or comprehending.

Can poets (can men in television)
Be saved? It is not easy
To believe in unknowable justice
Or pray in the name of a love
Whose name one’s forgotten: libera
Me, libera C (dear C)
And all poor s-o-b’s who never
Do anything properly, spare
Us in the youngest day when all are
Shaken awake, facts are facts,
(And I shall know exactly what happened
Today between noon and three)
That we, too, may come to the picnic
With nothing to hide, join the dance
As it moves in perichoresis,
Turns about the abiding tree.

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