Payton Danner

Turning Silence

W.H. Auden’s “Rachel” from For the Time Being (1941-42)

  • Faculty Advisor

    Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb

Published On

June 2018

Originally Published

NURJ 2017-18
Honors Thesis

“What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” [1] With this epigraph from Paul, W.H. Auden begins his long poem For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, written from 1941 to 1942. Auden’s “oratorio” recounts the story of the Nativity in modern diction. It stands as his only attempt — against his own critical opinions — to make Christianity the explicit subject matter of his poetry. For many of Auden’s critics, this work, along with “New Year Letter” (1940), provides a dividing line within Auden’s oeuvre, separating it in two distinct parts: the early, British, engagé, politically oriented Auden; and the later, Christian, “cozy” Auden, following his move to America in 1939. [2] However accurate this bifocal view of the poet may or may not be, For the Time Being is regarded by many as a turning point in Auden’s career. For some, this is related to its supposedly disappointing qualities: when not met with indifference, the poem has been accused of being poetically uneven, conceptually flawed, or simply an aesthetic failure. [3] While this study takes issue with such judgements, these very complaints nevertheless touch on a fundamental dimension of the poem itself –– some things are missing from Auden’s “Christmas oratorio.” As the epigraph indicates, a certain speechlessness, an anxiety over what to say, or an inability to speak articulately hovers over the poem from its first page. Paul’s questions, and the recognition of something vaguely “uneven” in the poem’s reception, therefore signal nothing so much as the absences and silences around which the oratorio is organized.

1. The Bible, Romans 6:1-2, King James Version. Quoted in Auden, Wystan Hugh, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage, 1991) 347. All following citations of Collected Poems will be parenthetical in the body of the text with the abbreviation Poems and relevant page numbers.

2. See especially Edward Mendelson’s volumes Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999) which have been recently compiled into a single-volume, two-part edition: Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017). The amount of scholarly works that have more or less conformed to Mendelson’s interpretation as a presupposition of Auden studies is too numerous to capture within the confines of a note. However, this idea of division cannot be fully to credited to Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor. Indeed, the violent criticism Auden received from the time he moved to America and onwards lends itself to this interpretation. Perhaps with these claims of betrayal in mind, Auden wrote to Stephen Spender in 1941: “...no one has a right to say that this place or that time is where intellectuals ought to be. [...] You are too old a hand to believe that History has a local habitation anymore.” Quoted in Susannah Young-Ah Gottlieb, “The Fallen Empire” in Auden at Work, ed. Galvin and Costello (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

3. These are the summarized opinions from many, but definitely not all, influential Auden scholars. See Mendelson, Early Auden, Later Auden, op. cit., esp. 499-51; and Arthur Kirsch, Auden and Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005) 42: “...though the poem remains a standard an compelling text for believing Christians, its literary quality is uneven.”

For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio is a work of mourning. With a dedication to Auden’s deceased mother, the title page alone casts this long poem into an elegiac mood. The oratorio was never set to music, as the composer Benjamin Britten had promised. It omits any mention of the brutal annihilations being organized while it was being written. Nowhere in all 53 pages can the redemptive child it announces be found. This is not meant to imply that it is predominantly sad — For the Time Being is occasionally raucous, outrageous, and very funny. But at the heart of the oratorio is one seemingly insignificant poem written out of sorrow: the small, peculiar, and critically neglected poem for Rachel, who mourns the innocent children whom Herod has murdered in Bethlehem. This study seeks to take account for the sources and consequences of the elegy that Auden writes for Rachel, a figure who is paradoxically revealed to be silent. This highly problematic poem tends toward speechlessness.“Her silence” is legible through several of Auden’s poetological concerns: voice, deixis, troping, versification, and memory. I argue that as Auden stunningly alters the function of Rachel’s appearance, this poem crystallizes a more accurate portrait of Auden’s evolving conception of the proper relation between poetry and religion in the early 1940s.

Before going into formal analysis, I want to underline the historical context of this poem which poses its own set of interpretative problems. The exact time that Rachel’s verse was written is unknown. However, in view of the poem’s unexpected and paradoxical announcement of “her silence,” one would be justified to suspect that Auden wrote it only after he found out that Britten had declined to set it to music. According to a 1941 letter that Auden wrote to Theodore Spencer, he originally intended Rachel’s song to be set in “the richest Mahleresque style.” [4] This, perhaps, places “Rachel” in 1943, when news of the Nazi extermination camps was first reaching the U.S. But this dating of the poem is by no means certain; it could be earlier. The so-called Wannsee Conference implementing the “Final Solution” was not held until January 1942. Prior to this, it is unclear how much Auden, or any American resident for that matter, knew about the operations of the Einsatzgruppen death squads, continuously active from 1939 to 1945 in the east. The poem never alludes to these atrocities. It does, however, generally allude to the modern world. One of the most distinctive features of For the Time Being is its modern diction, through which Auden adopts Kierkegaard’s doctrine of the contemporaneity of all believers. [5] For example, Herod, the client king of Rome that is ordering mass infanticide, proclaims from his citadel: “Things are beginning to take shape. It is a long time since anyone stole the park benches, or murdered the swans” (Poems 391). Historical contemporaneity easily lends itself to this kind of parody. But it just as easily lends itself to more disconcerting historical correspondences. Out of all the perplexities concerning this poem’s place in history, at least one thing is clear: when Auden’s oratorio finally left Random House in 1944, Rachel’s mourning for her children could hardly be read without the historical contemporaneity that the work as a whole seeks to expose.

4. See John Fuller, W.H. Auden: A Commentary (Princeton University Press, 2000) 354.

5. Kierkegaard’s idea consists in an extreme ahistoricism which contends that, from the perspective of Christian faith, nothing historically separates all believers in the Event from the Event itself. For the implications of this thought on For the Time Being, other poems, Auden’s meditations on history and the Roman Empire, see Gottlieb, “The Fallen Empire,” op. cit.

To my knowledge, Auden mentions the Biblical Rachel in his voluminous prose once, and only once: “[she who has] without understanding or choice become involved in the mystery as the innocents massacred by Herod were involved in the birth of Christ.” [6] This quotation from The Enchafèd Flood, discussing Melville’s use of the name Rachel, says as much about Auden’s view of Matthew’s Gospel as it purports to say about Moby Dick. According to Gospel, when news of the Incarnation reaches Herod, the tyrant orders the massacre of children in Bethlehem, upon which Matthew, in one of his most puzzling passages, quotes from the Book of Jeremiah, claiming that a messianic prophecy has been fulfilled:

6. See Auden, The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose III, 1949-1955, ed. Mendelson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) 42.

This is what the LORD says:
“A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and great weeping,
Rachel mourning for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.” [7]

7. Jeremiah 31:15 and Matthew 2:18.

As the archetypal mother of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, Rachel’s story is told in Genesis. [8] She belongs to Matthew’s narrative of the Nativity only anachronistically, and only according to specifically Christian messianic claims. In this passage from Jeremiah, God hears Rachel weeping over the suffering of her descendants and offers hope to his people: all will be returned from exile and an age of peace will be ushered in. The writer of Matthew later interprets Herod’s massacre and Jesus of Nazareth’s birth as the fulfillment of this verse. But Rachel herself, as Auden clearly demonstrates in The Enchafèd Flood, has no agency in validating Matthew’s claim. In both Jeremiah and Matthew, Rachel’s mourning is wordless. Thus the poetry Auden gives under the name “Rachel” at the end of “The Massacre of the Innocents” in For the Time Being comes from a strange nowhere land, where she cannot even say “I.” In contrast to the myriad of characters who speak in the first person throughout this dramatic work, the perspective of Rachel’s poem is hollowly omniscient:

8. The story of Rachel can be found in Genesis: 29-48.


On the Left are grinning dogs, peering down into a solitude too deep
to fill with roses.
On the Right are sensible sheep, gazing up at a pride where no dream
can grow.
Somewhere in these unending wastes of delirium is a lost child,
speaking of Long Ago in the language of wounds.
Tomorrow, perhaps, he will come to himself in heaven.
But here, Grief turns her silence, neither in this direction, nor in that, nor
for any reason.
And her coldness now is on the earth forever. (Poems 396)

So runs Auden’s largely overlooked poem for Rachel from For the Time Being. [9] As Auden translates the appearance of Rachel into his oratorio — from an English translation of Matthew’s Greek translation of Jeremiah’s Hebrew — there arises one decisive issue with the poem’s omniscience: the source-text is God’s voice. Any recreation of Matthew 2:18, written in any similarly external voice, categorically risks self-divinization. Auden avoids this danger by making no claim to hearing Rachel’s voice: she is silent. The only direct trace left of Matthew 2:18 is the subject of Rachel’s introduction, a personified “Grief,” which remains ambiguously distinct from Rachel herself. As predicates modify subjects, Auden’s predicate depicting her speechlessness — “turns her silence” — modifies the “Grief” evoked in scripture. In this tricky, but decisive, phrase (I will later return to the problem of “turning”), Auden manages to place profound sorrow at the heart of the poem, without adopting the perspective of a heavenly being that can hear Rachel’s voice, and justify the suffering of others with a divine plan.

9. To my knowledge, Rachel’s poem has not been the subject of any sustained interpretative efforts. Besides the critics who overlook the poem entirely, no scholar has offered more than a one-sentence reading: Monroe K. Spears calls it a “speech of great power and restraint” in Spears, The Poetry of W.H. Auden: The Disenchanted Island (New York: Oxford University Press, 1963) 215. Edward Mendelson overlooks the poem entirely in his comprehensive tome, Later Auden (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999). Fuller opaquely reads into the first two lines: “Auden again uses dogs and sheep as symbols of the self-absorption of flesh and intellect…” See John Fuller, W.H. Auden: A Commentary (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000) 354. Anthony Hecht offers a broad contextualization of the poem, discussing the historical significance of Rachel mourning her children, who, symbolizing the Israelites, represent the victims of Nazi terror. However, in Hecht’s reading of this “surprising” speaker, Rachel remains ironically silent: Hecht does not quote from one line of this “brief, solemn, and deeply moving speech.” See Hecht, The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W.H. Auden (Harvard University Press, 1993) 286-287. Arthur Kirsch inexplicably and incorrectly glosses the progression of the oratorio, writing that Section II of “The Massacre of the Innocents” for Herod’s soldiers progresses directly into “The Flight into Egypt”—as if to suggest Rachel is invisible; see Kirsch, Auden and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005) 55. The strange critical apparatus surrounding Rachel’s song can be understood in at least three ways: evidence of her spectral quality in the story of the Nativity, her consistently denied speech, and the unfortunate tendency in too much Auden criticism to gloss some of his most complex poems perfunctorily.

In addition to the Biblical tradition, Auden also inserts this poem into the English literary tradition. One rather well-known poet who alluded to hearing Rachel’s voice was, of course, Thomas Stearns Eliot in the final section of The Waste Land: “What is that sound high in the air / Murmur of maternal lamentation.” [10] These famous lines form an important literary context to Auden’s “Rachel,” which, unsurprisingly, reaches its climax at “unending wastes of delirium.” Another poem by Eliot concerning a figure named Rachel is also worth quoting here for context. The 1920 “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” contains the following explicitly anti-Semitic lines: “Rachel née Rabinovitch / Tears at the grapes with murderous paws / She and the lady in the cape / Are suspect, thought to be in league.” [11] In addition to one less subtle allusion in For the Time Being to Eliot’s Jew-hatred, demonstrated by the Narrator’s mention of “restrictions / Upon aliens and free-thinking Jews” (Poems 373), as Eliot outlined them in After Strange Gods, [12] Auden’s “Rachel” can be understood as a response to, if not an outright repudiation of, his predecessor’s treatments of Rachel. But this response consists of more than a nudge at Eliot’s elevated voice in The Wasteland and the anti-Semitic tendency of his early writings: Auden composes for Rachel a song — a song which was meant to be the richest in the musical work it never became.

10. See T.S. Eliot, ed. Valerie Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound (New York: Harvest, Harcourt, 1971) 145.

11. See Eliot, Collected Poems: 1909-1962 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) 49.

12. Quoted in Christopher Ricks, T.S. Eliot and Prejudice (London: Faber & Faber, 1994) 41.

Auden’s expression signaling her inaudibility, “turns her silence,” also informs several formal aspects of the poem. Upon inspection, the only legible metrical pattern occurs in the last line with heavy trochees: “Ānd her cōldness nōw is ōn the ēarth forēver.” This strong closing pattern invites a reinterpretation of the poem as a whole. The closest line prosodically to the last is doubtless the first, opening with clear trochees—“Ōn the Lēft are grīnning dōgs”—which are followed by imperfect wisps of them. Through the affinity between the beginning and closing lines, Auden draws upon the etymology of “trochaic,” the ancient Greek trokhós, originally meaning “wheel.” Auden’s trochees here can be understood spatially as a turning wheel, whose last line arrives again at the pattern with which the first began. However, this is an imperfect revolution. When the trochees return in Rachel’s last line, they are cut precisely in half: while the first contains 12 feet, the last has six. Therefore, the moment trochaic meter again takes over, and the wheel has, so to speak, gone full circle, six small feet — one might say, children’s feet, after the massacre  —are missing. In effect, the silent six feet suggested by the trochaic structure create a sort of doubly end-stopped silence. It is as if Auden wanted the only explicit absence over which Rachel mourns to be this abyss in the shape of the poem itself. This chasm constitutes the singular silence around which all the other silences of For the Time Being are organized.

The other spatial dynamics in Auden’s depiction of Rachel arrive at a similar kind of silence. Auden heavily employs the linguistic phenomenon of deixis, or “pointer words,” in Rachel’s verse, which is first introduced by the spatial relationships inherent in the “Left,” “Right,” “up” and “down” of the first two lines. Deixis is fundamentally implicated in a distinguishable origin: the here, now and I from which deictic speech can occur. But the inarticulate Rachel has no such origin from which to speak in this context. The final two lines could not be any clearer in this respect: when the voice of the poem says “here” and “now,” it is met with both Rachel’s silence and coldness. Moreover, the exact center of the poem, in terms of word count, is silent, because it lies somewhere in the middle of these two words: “child, speaking.” These two words, which signify Rachel’s most devastating losses, surround the silent origin from which all of the deictic language attempts to speak.

In November 1939, Auden wrote another poem in service of Christmas titled “Blessed Event” which curiously contains a parallel deictic formulation:

On the Left they remember difficult childhoods,
On the Right they have forgotten why they were so happy,
Above sit the best decisive people,
Below they must kneel all day so as to not be governed. (Poems 305)

For all the critical attention paid to Auden’s notorious habit of revising and removing some of his most beloved poems, far less attention has been paid to instances like this one, where phrases are transported into an entirely different context. The deictic center of “Blessed Event” is announced in the title: the miraculous birth of the Incarnation. But in Rachel’s verse, where the same exact cardinal points are addressed, the implicit deictic center and event are occupied by a monstrous vision. Whatever else may be said about the earlier poem, including its political satire, the revision signals Auden’s growing concern with the conditions which rob one of a deictic center, and thus a meaningful stance from which to speak. Precisely after this partial self-quotation, the poem turns towards an unidentifiable “Somewhere,” nowhere land where nothing articulate — only a “language of wounds” — can be heard.

Just as the only aural experience described by the poem is a “language of wounds,” so the versification of the poem itself is, in a certain sense, wounded. Strangely, Rachel’s poem does not employ enjambment. This is especially apparent in the way that most lines seem to spill over themselves. The syntax never stretches over — or “strides over,” enjambe — a line break. In this respect, Auden creates in Rachel’s verse a powerful resistance to a widely accepted definition of poetry itself –– the possibility of enjambment. This formal perplexity, however, would not be solved by categorizing the poem into a modernist genre of “free verse.” About this latter genre of poetry, Auden writes, with a bit of sarcasm, “So often, when reading “free” verse, I can see no reason why a line ends where it does; why the poet did not write it out as a prose-poem.” [13] Here, Auden touches on the possibility of a reason for line-endings, consonant at the very least with the “possibility of enjambment,” as an insuperable necessity for poetry. Giorgio Agamben’s recent definition of enjambment is instructive in this regard: “the opposition of a metrical limit to a syntactical limit, or a prosodic pause to a semantic pause.” [14] As Agamben argues in The End of the Poem, the result of such limits and pauses is a “schism [scissione] of sound and sense” (a rephrasing of Valéry’s definition of poetry: “hesitation prolongée entre le sons et le sens [a prolonged hesitation between sound and sense]).” [15] Yet Rachel’s verse, strictly speaking, lacks this schism. Her “possibility of enjambment” remains a sheer possibility, suspended in the silence after each end-stop. The point is that what paradoxically holds the poem together qua poetry — why, in Auden’s own words, he did not “write it out as a prose-poem” [16]— is precisely Rachel’s silence.

13. Auden, “On Rhythm” in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose VI, 1969-1973,  ed. Mendelson (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2015) 725.

14. Giorgio Agamben, The End of the Poem: Studies in Poetics, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999) 109.

15. Ibid.

16. It may be interesting to note that Simeon—the only character who is a poet, having created the Nunc dimittis—is given prose. In the initial drafts of For the Time Being, Auden attempted to write poetry for Simeon, the poet, “just and devout man,” and paradigmatic convert. See Luke 2:25. Simeon’s opening lines of verse—“To-day has been one of those perfect winter days, cold, brilliant, and utterly still...”—now reside, however, in the opening section of the preposterous prose monologue spoken by Herod, administrator of mass murder. See Edward Mendelson, “Revision and Power: The Example of W.H. Auden” Yale French Studies, no. 89 (1996): 103-112. Simeon famously sings the Nunc dimittis, and thus becomes a poet, at the moment he holds the infant Jesus of Nazareth in his arms. In 1928, Eliot wrote a first-person monologue in verse for Simeon entitled “A Song for Simeon” which, in many ways, reflects his own “conversion” to Anglo-Catholicism the year prior. Eliot’s poem was doubtless on Auden’s mind when his own verses for Simeon were written—and then given over to Herod. Auden’s decision to cast Simeon’s text in prose signals something to which Eliot was obliviously unaware: a poem for a paradigmatic poet, “devout” convert and “just” man written by a modern-day poet, who also may be converting to Christianity himself (or herself), cannot fail to be read as a self-glorification of this very latter-day poet—as if he, too, had held Christ in his arms. Auden’s clear avoidance of this issue is fundamentally related to the absence of a redemptive child in For the Time Being. This constellation of resonances with Eliot in Auden’s oratorio, only some of which are assembled here, testify to something like an “anxiety of influence.” This would be a fitting topic for another study.

Agamben’s poetological reflections in The End of the Poem (1996) illuminate one further aspect of Auden’s work. The phenomenon to which Agamben is principally drawn is, of course, “the end of the poem” in its most literal sense –– the final line. The simple, and “trivial fact” for the philosopher is that the final line of a poem cannot be enjambed. Drawing upon Mallarmé, without naming him, Agamben shows how the last line enters into a “crise de vers [crisis of verse].” Because the possibility of enjambment ceases, a final line of a poem paradoxically cannot be called poetry. This “poetic emergency,” Agamben argues, explains the inner necessity of inherited poetic conventions like the envoi. Auden, who, after all, knew how to read poetry, is clearly aware of this paradox. After Rachel’s silence — the life force of the poem — cannot be turned “in this direction, nor in that,” the last line falls short, recalling nothing so much as Rachel’s own death: “her coldness now is on the Earth forever.” When Agamben describes what follows a crise de vers as a “collapse into silence,” it is almost as if he were freely drawing upon Auden’s “Rachel.” This is, of course, unlikely. However emphasizing their occasionally uncanny similarities is not to suppose a direct influence. Rather, it to show how vital “turning” is to the poetic experience.

Turns are the central preoccupations of the poem, but none of them quite work. The trochaic wheel does not fully turn around, the turns of enjambment do not occur, and the inability of “Grief” to turn in any direction, or for any reason, describes a crisis of mourning. As Peter Sacks describes in his authoritative study on the Western elegiac tradition, “It is this substitutive turn or act of troping that any mourner must perform.” [17] The etymological origins of “trope” (Greek: trópos), and “verse” (Latin: verto) both mean “to turn.” Following lines of thought introduced earlier, Auden and Agamben both revivify the ancient analogy between the turning of verses in poetry and the turning of plows in fields. Agamben mentions this farming analogy in a philologically suspect aside. [18] Auden expressed it with very great beauty in his famous 1939 elegy for W.B. Yeats:

17. See Peter Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985) 5.

18. Agamben states that the word versure used to mean “the point at which the plow turns around at the end of the furrow.” See Agamben, ibid., 111. This term, “versure,” may indeed be the vocative masculine singular form of the Latin participle versurus, but it cannot be a noun, as he clearly suggests. In any case, the definition he cites cannot be found in any standard dictionaries. It would be more precise to state that the Latin verb for turning could be understood metaphorically in the context of both agriculture and poetry, as the etymology of “verse” proves.

With the farming of a verse,
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress. (Poems 249)

Despite its centrality in the Yeats elegy — one of the most consequential poems of its genre in the 20th century — Auden’s allusion to “the farming of a verse” has gone unremarked upon. Susan Stewart’s explication of the same phenomenon summarizes its significance in the history of poetics with acumen: “This deep analogy between the turning [strophé] that opens the earth to the sky and the turning that inscribes the page with a record of human movement is carried forward in the notion of verse as a series of turns and in the circling recursivity of all lyric forms.” [19]

19. Susan Stewart, “Sound” in Poetry and the Fate of the Senses (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2002) 85. Stewart’s analysis of boustrophēdon occurs in the context of a discussion on Wallace Stevens’ similar interest in the ancient connotations of writing.

Rachel’s lines are insistently concerned with the relationship between “earth” and “heaven,” the “circling recursivity” of her form, and, above all, “verse as a series of turns.” It is no accident that Auden wrote “farming a verse” in an elegy. Turning also describes consolatory troping, that is, finding a substitutive object-relation that accompanies the process of grief itself. Part of the initial opacity of “Rachel” derives from the way in which it speaks tropologically. What Auden gives as Rachel’s response to catastrophe is literally a kata strophein, a “down turn” into the abyss of “solitude” which no amount of roses, as tropes for love, could ever fill. The danger imposed upon “sensible sheep” by “grinning dogs” — tropes for the Israelites and their enemies, respectively — is obvious. However, the kind of person who is supposed to save sheep from vicious dogs, a shepherd, the trope for a Messiah, is missing from the scene. Rachel’s poem emphatically does not signal or call attention to the arrival of a divine child, which goes against the grain of Matthew’s Gospel. Auden instead directs the attention toward the monstrous “wastes of delirium” left by Herod’s soldiers, where a helpless and lost child’s life is in danger. He will perhaps — but only perhaps — be in Heaven tomorrow. The poem is concerned not with the child who escaped to Egypt, but with the child who was left in the carnage, and whose life is threatened.

In that crucial “perhaps,” the poem makes no claims to knowing the status of the child’s soul. The accompanying imagery echoes this. The sky is cast as a “pride where no dream can grow.” Auden does not occupy the perspective of a being in the sky who can hear Rachel, for this would be pride. Nor does he promote gazing into the sky for another world (“dream”) beyond this one. The latter, however, is precisely what Rachel does in the Christian theological tradition. Known for the beauty of her eyes as she gazed into heaven, Rachel came to be identified with monasticism. Auden makes this identification quite plain: Rachel’s name, in Hebrew, means “ewe.” Yet Auden’s poem so thoroughly resists otherworldliness, either in visions of salvation, or private worlds of “solitude.” The poem is entirely absorbed by what is “on the earth.” Most importantly, there is a lost child somewhere who needs to be taken care of.

Finally, by emphasizing Rachel’s silence, distinct from her life of prayer, Auden astonishingly recreates one of the most essential features of her importance in Jewish, but not Christian, mysticism. Rachel’s silence when her sister Leah was given to Jacob for marriage, even though Jacob and Rachel were in love. The midrash famously says that, later in the story, God gives Rachel the gift of natality after being barren for so long because “He remembered that she was silent when Leah was placed in her stead.” [20] Auden remembers her silence, but he does not give her the miracle of childbirth in For the Time Being. Rachel turns “cold,” just as when she herself died in childbirth. Thus, the oratorio as a whole, which is supposed to be about the time of redemption, collapses at the exact point where gestures toward a coming child should be the strongest. For Auden, the only miraculous child is the one who survived the slaughter, and might live to tell the story. If there is one narrow place in which Auden’s “Rachel” approaches transcendence, it seems to lie here: Auden often notes that the mother of the muses was Mnēmosynē. In line with this, Auden remembers Rachel’s silence, and turns this remembrance into the memory and memorability of poetry.

20. See the Bereshit Rabah 71; Kedushat Levi 24b; Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 73.4. Quoted in Samuel Dresner, “Rachel and Leah” in Judaism 38(2) 1989, 157; and Jerry Rabow, The Lost Matriarch: Finding Leah in the Bible and Midrash (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).


Payton graduated from Northwestern June 2017, with a B.A. in English Literature and Music with a concentration in classical saxophone performance. His interests lie in the areas of poetry and poetics, continental philosophy and political theory. Since graduation, he has started working towards a master's degree in literary studies at the University of Cambridge.


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