For the Time Being by W.H. Auden

‘For the Time Being’ was written in the early 1940s and published in 1944. It was one of two poems included in Auden’s book of the same title, For the Time Being. The companion piece was ‘The Sea and the Mirror’. Auden wrote this poem with the intention of it being set to music by Benjamin Britten. In its full form, this never occurred, but sections of it were eventually given musical backing. 


Summary of For the Time Being

In this section of ‘For the Time Being’ by W.H. Auden the chosen speaker describes what it is like after Christmas is over and everyone returns to normal life. 

The poem uses vivid imagery to depict the dismantling of the Christmas tree and the state of everyone’s religiosity. During the Christmas season everyone tried their best to love their family members and devote themselves to God. But, as one gets farther away from that time things change. The world returns to normal and everything becomes redefined by reason. 

You can read the full poem here.


Structure of For the Time Being 

This excerpt of ‘For the Time Being’ by W.H. Auden is thirty-five lines long. It is contained within a single stanza of text and does not conform to a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but the lines are fairly similar in syllable number. The poem is made up of a series of dramatic monologues that are spoken by characters and choruses, as well as a narrator. The full poem is 1,500 lines long, spanning, in Auden’s book For the Time Being, fifty-two pages. 

The poem is set in the contemporary world, and Auden uses modern, colloquial diction to tell the stories. This makes them relatable, easy to access, and clear. 


Poetic Techniques in For the Time Being 

Auden makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘For the Time Being’. These include, but are not limited to, caesura, metaphor, alliteration, and enjambment. Alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “dismantle” and “decorations” in lines one and two and “warmed-up” and “week” in line six. 

Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. There are several examples in this poem due to the sentence-like structure of the verses. For instance, line one reads: “Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree” and line thirty-three: “Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment”. 


Other Techniques

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines eleven and twelve as well as lines twenty-one and twenty-two. 

A metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. In the case of ‘For the Time Being,’ there are a few examples. For instance, in the twenty-first line in which the poet compares the modern world to an Aristotelian city. Through this metaphor, he is speaking to the ways in which life is rationalized and understood to a great extent.


Analysis of From For the Time Being 

Lines 1-10 

In the first lines of this section of ‘For the Time Being’ the speaker begins by making a statement about the end of the Christmas season. It is over, “that is that”. It is time now, they declare, to put everything away. There is a lot to do and then its time to move on. This speaker takes the reader through a few images of the post-Christmas time. These include the broken ornaments, unavoidable casualties of dismantling the Christmas tree. 

There are “holly and mistletoe” that must be taken down and burnt. This image is interesting when juxtaposed against the supposed cheer and happiness of the recently past holiday season. 

As the poem moves on, the speaker decides their children, what needs to happen next, and what happened in the past. They consider what Christmas was like and how successful or unsuccessful it was. One thing that they bring up is the attempt to “love all our relatives”. This was “unsuccessful,” they add. This alludes to a great deal. A reader can take their time and read into what that phrase might be referencing. 


Lines 11-20 

In the next few lines, the speaker references the made and broken promises to God. They all, as usual, have tried and failed to dedicate themselves to God. They promised to remain his servant if a disobedient one. Auden describes this speaker’s, and their relative’s attempts at faithful lives, to a child who “cannot keep His word for long”. 

The poem becomes more complex in the following lines as the speaker alludes to the future. Eventually, they will all have to readdress their faith once more and see that they have failed. They are apprehensive at the thought as they consider Lent and Good Friday, which aren’t so far away. 


Lines 21-29

The next lines take the reader into a metaphor that compares the present to an Aristotelian city. It is a place where nothing is accepted unless it’s physically real. The most real things are the table, “because [the speaker] scrubs it”. Everything is defined and accounted for by Newton’s mechanics and Euclid’s geometry. The world is defined in black and white the further one gets from the holidays. 

The twenty-eight and twenty-ninth lines of this excerpt bring the reader around the title of the poem, “The Time Being”. It is the “most trying time of all”. 


Lines 30-35 

In the final lines of this section of ‘For the Time Being’ the speaker compares the transition from the holiday spirit to post-holiday gloom to a child opening a locked door behind which there are presents. They grow up in that moment as things are revealed to them. The last lines of the excerpt allude to a revelation of life’s reality. Nothing remains unknown for long in the modern world. Everything eventually gets a name and any mystery dissolves the closer one gets to it. 

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