Alone About Our Dreadful Wood
For the Time Being. By W. H. Auden. (Faber, 8s. 6d.) The Black Seasons. By Henry Treece. (Faber, 6s.) The Bright-Winged Piper. By Padraig O'Horan. (Fortune Press, 6s.)
Reviewed by IRIS CONLAY
AUDEN and Treece have joined the great throng of religious poets. Auden, coldly intellectual as ever, has written what he de-ecribes as a Christmas oratorio; Treece's achievement may be less in acreage but his lyrics, in their direct simplicity, hold a depth of feeling that is difficult to discover in the labyrinths of the cerebral For the Time Being. Someone once said that it was impossible to be a poet without being a Catholic poet ; whethei this could be defended to the hilt I don't know, but it is quite truenhat there are few poets who have not become fascinated with the problems of life and death, good and evil, sin and redemption. And Once the imagination work t upon these realities. it is the Catholic approach which is often discovered. Auden's oratorio, telling the story of Christ's coming upon earth, is a religious quest rather than a religious assertion. It is full a hesitations and doubts, and its method is to shock its readers into teligious consciousness. Staging the birth of Christ in a contemporary timelessness, Auden i soncerned less with the events of the Nativity than with the recurring human conflict between innocence and experience; between the knowledge of the right and the doing of it:
Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood of conscious evil rims a lost mankind, Dreading to find US Father lest it find The Goodness it has dreaded is not good; Alone, alone, about a dreadful wood.
MANKIND he describes as in a state of Advent, or waiting for a Revelation It is achievement of. this state to have found that the " Pilgrim way has led to the Abyss." leaving what Auden calls our ",richly odoured ignorance" for trueb we might ave hoped for the triumphant answer. Instead the Abyss; instead the consent EL..die.
Then the Christ Child conies. First thc Shepherds see the vision: We never left the place where we were born, Have muy lived one day, but every day Have walked a thousand miles yet only worn The. path between our work and home • away.
Lonely we were though never kit alone. 7 he solitude familiar to the poor Is feeling that the family next door, The way it talks, eats, dresses, loves and hates, Is indistinguishable from one's own. To-night for the first time the prison gates
Have opened. Music and sudden light Have interruptpil our routine to-night, And swept away The filth of habit from our hearts.
0 here and now our endless journey starts. Then the wise men;
Child, at whose birth we would do obsequy
For our tall errors of imagination. Redeem our talents with your little cry.
In one lyric, "Our Lady's Thoughts at the Manger." Auden shows great tendernese and depth of feeling, but his hest passages are not those . where he shows himself a lesser Eliot, but where he passes satirical judgments upon the worldlings of the story. Herod's thoughts, arising from this considera tion: " Naturally .this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilisation must tiie saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it in the end civilisit(ion always has to call in those professional ridiers to whom it . is all one whether it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to externthiate," arid Simeon's philosophising are both brilliantly argued.
At the end, when Auden describes the dismantl ng of the Christmas tree, the return to the darning and to the catching of the 8.15, there is a fumbling to find a place where religion could impinge upon reed life:
To those who lane seen The Child, however dimly, however incredulously., The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
How to redeem the time being from insignificance—that is the question Auden asks, and he answers it as mystics of all time have answered it, through suffering.
UENICY Treece is to the heart what Auder is to the head., His "Christ Child " beginning "Warm as a little mouse he lay." is a lovely thing. "The Thief to his Lord". is vigorous, direct and in the earl rousing tradition of Catholic ballads. In "The Young Nun to her lover " Treece allows spirituality aridde sensuality to mingle as the mystics have done before him:
Oh Lord, the blood that crusted to your
Is frozen love. step down front that gaunt tree
And let toy passion warn you. . .
Ah, should your broken fingers wave a braid Of 'ay gold hair, I'd wrap the golden bands About that shrunken throat to-keep you close;
Always, my love; bereft of you, no peace. Because the religious content is of particular importance to us, it has been segregated from the rest in this notice, but it must be noted that Auden has also written a commentary in verse and prose on Shakespeare's "Tempest," and Treece's religious verse is only a selection of the whole, /NOT in the same category poetically as Auden or recce, yet the religious cycle of poerris called Christmas Candles, by Padraig O'Horan, is a simple and direct expression of a real faith which gives it dignity and distinction. Here are unworried, accepting meditative and. unanalytical, nearer to prayer than to poetry often, but seldom without melody or grace.