Nones: by W. H. Auden - Summary and Analysis

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      The crucifixion of Christ, the Christian theme has been dealt by Auden in Nones. Auden has superbly dealt with the Christian themes of the crucifixion, Grace and the Original sin. Nones is the daily office of the church originally said at the ninth hour, or three o'clock in the afternoon. It was between the sixth and ninth hour, while Christ hung on the cross, that there was darkness over the earth, the sun was darkened.

      In this volume, there are no major statements. There are Christian themes in the background. The frivolity is in a sense permissible because the last things, death, judgment, hell, heaven, are always in Auden's mind. His handling of the theme of Grace and Original Sin is superb.

      Auden sets his sense of the crucifixion against the pagan mythological background, which leads a touch of the exotic to the highly suggestive and vivid atmosphere of the poem. In Auden's poem, Christ's birth is ironically proclaimed by the pagan priests-

What we know to be not possible
Though, time after time foretold
By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil
Gibbering in their trances...

      Auden presents the crisis of the modern world pointedly, employing phrases and expressions remarkably sharp and pungent: "too hot, too bright, too still, too ever"

Auden in the Poem Nones says that people hardly remembers the significance of Christ's crucification. Sinful man no longer follows the teachings of Christ, nor remembers that he died for his sake. He tries to restore order in his disordered world, but such an order can come about only by chance.


      In the first stanza, it is said that the birth of Christ was announced by angels; which has been mocked by the pagan prophets. Christ's birth is unbelievable - the change of 'will' into 'kill' is also unbelievable - but it is happening. We have forgotten the message of God so soon, that we are surprised at our own "ease and speed".

      It is barely three / mid-after noon, yet the blood / of our sacrifice is already / Dry on the grass. That is to say that the sacrifice of Christ, and the history of human civilization, are barely two thousand years old, yet we have already forgotten the message of Christ and the values of life Christ stood for. The blood of Christ could have redeemed us, but it is already dry on the grass, left there uncared for and unattended to.

      In the second stanza of the poem Auden introduces the final scene of the crucifixion which is the central event and round which is the main theme of the poem centers. The description of the 'sacrifice' conveys the impression of man's dehumanization. The crowd gathered to watch the crucifixion is indistinct - 'faceless'. It is the kind of crowd which gathers whenever there is an impending calamity, when.

Any world is to be wrecked,
Blown up, burnt down, cracked open,
Filled, sawn in two, hacked through, torn apart.

      The dehumanized nature of mankind has been reflected by the poet through the images of Violence. The scene of the crucifixion in this stanza appears to be more like a scene of animal sacrifice than of an important historical event.

      In the third stanza, the Madonnas with the green 'wood-pecker', of the fig tree and beside the yellow dam turn their faces, as man has lost his creativity: his projects under construction are incomplete and are not expected to be completed. His tools - pile driver, concrete mixer, crane and pick axe - are lying unused. These images also concretely conjure up the industrial and technological world. The images of the Madona, which are like paintings hung on a wall, are in contrast with the images suggesting the world lying in a jumble of bricks. We have the material and the resources to rebuild the city destroyed by bombs and artillery in the war, but we do have not the will to do so. We feel that we are like discarded artifacts (construction). We are as worn out and as useless as torn gloves, rusted kettles, abandoned branch lines, and grindstones buried in nettles.

      The fourth stanza is taken up with the sense of human guilt which is a result of the crucifixion. Man, stricken by the guilt of Christ's death, 'This mutilated flesh' - feels the spell of the garden of Gethsemane where Christ was betrayed and seized. The stanza contains war imagery. This human flesh mutilated by war explains our passion for evil and sin, the type of passion Christ had for God, while he was in communion with God in the Asparagus garden. Everything has been destroyed by war. Christ was arrested from the Asparagus garden on the tip of a black sheep. He was led to the gallows through the streets, where people chased him and laughed at him. Till the world lasts, this death of Christ will be remembered, and books will be written on it. Bible has been written to remember Christ. The guilt of the momentous event haunts man in every sphere and activity of his life cannot be the same for him:

      The aim of our Chalk-pit gam; stamps, Birds' eggs are not the same: behind the wonder

Of two-paths and sunken lanes,
Behind the rapture on the spiritual stair,
We shall always now be aware
of the deed into which they bad...

      In stanza 5th the poet says that the prayer at 3 o'clock is an empty ritual. Christ will no longer be remembered. Very soon the cold northern wind will start blowing. People will resume their work at four. Buses will continue plying as usual. Before we choose to do something constructive, we shall have forgotten the message of Christ - "Bread will melt, water will burn." Bread is the flesh of Christ and water, the blood. Every Church goer has to eat bread and drink water in the Church as a ritual. The significance of the Last Supper (suggested by the 'bread' and 'water' in the poem) will be lost for man. The forces of evil will be in operation again:

And the great quell begin; Abaddan
Set up his triple gallows
At our seven gates, fat Belial make
Our wives waltz naked..

      In stanza 6 Auden describes the dream. People generally escape from the sense of guilt through the nightmare of human will. Man will try to escape into a nightmare world to avoid the guilt and responsibility for the deed:

Water instead
On knife edges, on black and white squares,
Across moss, baize, velvet, boards,
over cracks and hillocks.

      What we fail to achieve in the world, we try to achieve in our dreams. In dreams, we do unbelievable things like walking on knife edges, on black and white squares, across moss, over cracks and hillocks, down granite ramps and damp passages. We find in dream our double self sitting and busy writing.

      The description is punctuate with some realistic images suggestive of the modern world-telephones ringing and a room lit by a weak bulb.

      In the seventh stanza, our guilty self tries to restore the order we have destroyed. Physically things will be seen normal in the world. Valves will open and close, glands will secrete, vessels will expand and contract and essential fluids will flow to renew the cells. Human guilt is here contrasted with the innocence of the animal kingdom. But animals do not remain unaffected by the event. They watch in stillness and frightened, fearing that man may again do something to plague the world for ages. The poem closes with an effective contrast between human guilt and the innocence and limitations of natural creatures. Our conscience is the Hawk, that watches us very attentively. Hen is our guilty self that is doing all the deeds.

Critical Appreciation and Analysis

      Auden in the Poem Nones says that people hardly remembers the significance of Christ's crucification. Sinful man no longer follows the teachings of Christ, nor remembers that he died for his sake. He tries to restore order in his disordered world, but such an order can come about only by chance. Man is overtaken by spiritual deadness and he does not make any effort to build the good city, the city of God on earth. His will is collapsed and there are corruption and death within him. Haunted by a sense of guilt, man tries to escape the reality of his guilt in various ways. He dreams of impossible, romantic Quixotic achievements. But all such dreams are mere illusions, symptoms of corruption and disease in the human psyche. Corruption, sexuality are wide-spread and human attempts at reform are unrealistic. Order can be imposed upon this disordered conditions of contemporary civilization, only if man returns to Christ. 'Eros' should be replaced by 'Agape', love for all in the Christian sense. Then alone can spiritual regeneration take place.

      To quote Munroe K. Spears: "Nones follows immediately in context; the crucification, the archetypal sin, has taken place and we, the crowd, though trying to evade responsibility, "are left along with the feat". Now we can no longer believe ourselves to be innocent; we must see that evil will have its way. The poem gains much dramatic effect from being set in the Siesta hour of sleepy after-dinner stillness, after the act but before the consequences. It is well, the poet suggests, with realism and humility, for our minds to try to escape, though they escape into night-mare and here Auden has a stanza of fine romantic ominousness - while our bodies restore themselves, while our "wronged flesh restores its own natural order".

      The poem reflects Auden's pre-occupation with Christian theology. Symbolic imagery which has been drawn from the contemporary industrial urban society has been used in a quite usual manner. Thus the theme of the poem is religious, having for its background the various events connected with the crucification of Christ.


      Auden's Nones is characterized by a variety of imagery in its minute details, a dramatic tone and the touches of subtle irony. The poet invests the theme of the crucifixion with a tremendous historical significance. The poet then extends this theme to the animal kingdom. In several lines of the poem, Auden has successfully shown himself as a master of word-painter.

      The presence of Madona in the poem symbolizes man's betrayal of his potentiality: the buildings of the city are only half-finished, and it seems impossible that they should ever be completed by men who themselves feel like discarded artifacts.

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