Magazine article The Spectator

Shafts of Light

Magazine article The Spectator

Shafts of Light

Article excerpt

Tough stuff on Radio Three on Good Friday, and an uncompromising bit of programming. W.H. Auden's Horae Canonicae, his seven-part meditation on the Crucifixion of Christ, was read throughout the day in its seven sections at approximately the proper canonical 'hours', the times at which prayers are said each day in monastic communities. It was thrilling stuff, too. An intense mix of profoundly depressing metaphysical thoughts and robustly comical slices of everyday life. Profoundly depressing because Auden dwells on 'what happened today between noon and three', and its implication, 'the truth we can't digest'.

Robustly comical because every so often he veers abruptly from poetic introspection to a vivid, concrete conversational style -- 'After shaking paws with his dog, / (Whose bark would tell the world that he is always kind, )/ The hangman sets off briskly over the heath. . .'

This is how Auden begins 'Terce', the third office of the monastic day. First, though, we have 'Lauds', which captures that waking moment before the conscious mind fully gets into gear; and then 'Prime', when the 'Gates of the body fly open/ To its world beyond, the gates of the mind'.

By 'Terce' at ten o'clock we should be fully awake, wholly engaged with the world; and yet, says Auden, precisely because of that wakeful alertness we become once more willingly oblivious to the central truth of the human condition -- that at some point during the day we will hurt someone, we will create a victim. And that this will happen each and every day, sooner or later.

You see what I mean. Tough stuff.

And so densely worded that at times it was almost too difficult to follow, at a single listening, the swift flow of thoughts.

Fortunately, to help us slow down enough to catch hold of the meaning, each 'hour' was introduced by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, with such scholarly intimacy that it was like listening to the deluxe version of an audio guide to a gallery of intensely complex medieval miniatures. 'There's a lot of guilt ahead for the awakened spirit, ' he warned at the beginning of 'Prime'.

No attempt, then, to mince words, or ideas; to palliate, obfuscate, dislocate. It was just so bracing, like breathing fresh air after too long in the city.

Why, for instance, is Good Friday so called? …

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