W. H. Auden's "Vespers": A Christian Refutation of Utopian Dreams of Ultimate Fulfillment

By Curtis, Jan | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

W. H. Auden's "Vespers": A Christian Refutation of Utopian Dreams of Ultimate Fulfillment


Curtis, Jan, Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature


The past is not to be taken seriously (let the dead bury their dead) nor the future (take no thought for the morrow), only the present instant and that, not for its aesthetic emotional content but for its historic decisiveness. (Now is the appointed time.)

W. H. Auden, "Postscript: The Frivolous & the Earnest"

Horae Canonicae is W. H. Auden's poetic hermeneutic of the Divine Office which was published as a sequence of seven poems in The Shield of Achilles in 1955.(1) As the official prayer of the Roman Catholic Church, the Office strikes its roots deeply down into the Judeo-Christian tradition of prayer and worship. Horae Canonicae derives its shape and rhythm from the temporal divisions of the Canonical Hours that for centuries have been chanted and spoken both communally and privately. The order of specific prayers in the perpetual round of the Hours follows the pattern of our daily activities from sunrise to sunset and integrates the recurring cycle of birth, disintegration, and death which characterizes temporal existence. In The Shape of the Liturgy, which Auden read and admired, Dom Gregory Dix shows that the Divine Office developed from a desire to sanctify time by integrating work and worship. The pattern of the day's work and activity is affirmed in terms of the events of salvation history.(2) In this affirmation of history as a dimension of God's presence, the Divine Office dramatizes the paradoxical nature of our existence as simultaneously finite and free. The cyclic pattern of the liturgical calendar mirrors the limitations of finite creatures bound by necessity. The liturgy, however, is not enclosed by its own necessity but open to the ultimate freedom manifested in the historical event of the Cross of Good Friday. Auden's adaptation of the Divine Office dramatizes his Christian understanding of our nature and destiny as free but finite men and women "mocked by unmeaning" and driven to redeem the "Time Being" from insignificance.

The setting of Horae Canonicae is Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion in the liturgical year. The sequence of the poems is guided by the Canonical Hours beginning with prime (6:00 a.m.), which prepares us for the coming day, and ending with lauds the next day (3:00 a.m.), a jubilant resurrection prayer which celebrates redemption and the wonders of creation. Each of the Canonical Hours re-enacts an aspect of the Christian conception of salvation history. In Horae Canonicae Auden follows the liturgical drama of salvation, beginning with the awakening of humanity represented by Adam in "Prime" and concluding with the blessing and thanksgiving of "Lauds." The sequence as a whole is haunted by the crucifixion recalled in the epigraph, "immolatus vicerit," from the hymn "Pange lingua" sung during the solemn procession of the Blessed Sacrament on Good Friday. "Prime" prepares for "the dying / Which the coming day will ask" (476); "Terce" ironically assures us that "by sundown / We shall have had a Good Friday" (477); while "Sext" struggles to make sense of "this death," "this dying" (478, 480). "Nones" cannot forget the knowledge that "wherever / The sun shines, brooks run, books are written, /There will also be this death" (481). It is this death that secures the walls of the earthly city in "Vespers," but in "Compline" becomes the center of a theological dance which "moves in perichoresis, / Turns about the abiding tree" of the crucifixion (485). Horae Canonicae remembers the crucifixion as central to a Christian philosophy of history and ultimate fulfillment. To define this philosophy Auden re-shapes the age-old material of the Divine Office which, in the course of a single day, represents the events of sacred history in the eternal now of liturgical anamnesis.

Of the seven poems in Horae Canonicae "Vespers" foregrounds the illusions of utopian and arcadian, hence non-Christian, visions of ultimate fulfillment. In "Dingley Dell & the Fleet," an essay from The Dyer's Hand, Auden describes utopia and arcadia in terms of our romantic desire for the "Happy Place" where evil and suffering are unknown. …

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