For the Time Being (featuring "The Sea and the Mirror")
Born in England in 1907, Wystan Hugh Auden grew up in Birmingham, England, and started writing his earliest poems in the late 1920s. The impassioned intensity of the tone of his verse as well as his affiliation with Christ Church, Oxford introduced Auden to the public as a political poet and prophet.
In the late 1930s, Auden attempted to distance himself from this characterization, and eventually moved to the United States in 1939. In 1940, after already residing in Brooklyn Heights for one year, W.H. Auden made his application for U.S. Citizenship, which would be finalized in 1946. Simultaneously, he returned to the Anglican Church. For the Time Being was produced in Auden's initial years of his renewed faith and U.S. residency. The volume contained two long poems, "The Sea and the Mirror" and the title poem, "For the Time Being."
"The Sea and the Mirror" is a poem that literally follows a performance of Shakespeare's The Tempest. In fact, the poem's subtitle is: "A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest." It imagines the curtain being re-lifted and several of the players speaking to themselves, the audience—even as the audience, and the author. Auden believed the poem to be a meditation on the efficacy of art, "I am attempting something which in a way is absurd, to show in a work of art, the limitations of art."
The poem is divided into three chapters. In the first, Prospero, the protagonist of the play, speaks to Ariel, his attendant spirit. Prospero’s sentiments, those of abandoning is art, are answered in the second chapter by the supporting cast of the play. Each character, or set of characters, responds to Prospero. This second chapter is remarkable for Auden's formal executions—each character is not only given their moment to speak, but they are also given a form that seems most appropriate to their sentiments and attitudes. The poem is closed with the voice of Caliban, who speaks in a pastiche of Jamesian prose styles. Caliban, the personification of nature, is given the longest performance, and he is allowed to condense everything that has come earlier in the poem.
The second long poem in For the Time Being, the title poem, is subtitled "A Christmas Oratorio" and consists of a series of dramatic monologues re-telling the Christmas story. Auden re-casts the setting and the diction of the characters so as to present a contemporary narrative.
Besides being an intense meditation on the role of art in the natural world, For the Time Being is a rich artifact of Auden's poetic gifts. His fluency with varieties of form is matched by a deeply literate mind willing to question its place in the world.