What Happened Between Noon and Three
W. H. Auden’s poetic sequence “Horae Canonicae” has the subtitle, “Immolatus vicerit.” These words come from the sixth-century Latin hymn Pange Lingua Gloriosi Proelium Certaminis. They mean, “Sacrificed, he will be victorious.”
“Horae Canonicae” gets its title from the Church’s canonical hours, and each of the sequence’s seven poems refers to a specific, fixed time of prayer: “Prime,” “Terce,” “Sext,” “Nones,” “Vespers,” “Compline,” and “Lauds.” In Auden’s poems, Christ’s Passion is remembered in a way that can only be called sacramental: the Paschal sacrifice is re-presented, made living and painful and triumphant, once again.
“Prime” begins by representing the joy with which we meet the new day. (Auden throughout the sequence uses the first person—“I” and “we”—to indicate that the narrative he tells is about all people.) Cleansed of our nighttime thoughts, “recalled from the shades to be a seeing being,” we feel free of willfulness and self-consciousness: “The world is present, about, / And I know that I am, here, not alone / But with a world and rejoice.” We are like Adam, seemingly unbesmirched by sin or regret: “Still the day is intact, and I / The Adam sinless in our beginning, / Adam still previous to any act.”
This Edenic state, however, cannot last. To move out of bed is to move into the world of will and action, and therefore into the world of sin:
I draw breath; that is of course to wish
No matter what, to be wise,
To be different, to die and the cost,
No matter how, is Paradise
Lost of course and myself owing a death.
As we read “Terce,” corresponding to the 9:00 am prayer, the looming specter of death becomes more real. The hangman sets off for work, confident in his abilities even though he doesn’t “know yet who will be provided / To do the high works of Justice with”; the judge goes to the courtroom, not clear “by what sentence / He will apply on earth the Law that rules the stars,” but knowing that such earthly judgments will be required of him. Though the hangman is uncertain of precisely who will be punished, though the judge doesn’t yet know what legal measures he will find to enforce this punishment, they both know one thing—that punishment will happen:
[Each] knows already that, in fact, our prayers are heard,
That not one of us will slip up,
That the machinery of our world will function
Without a hitch, that today, for once,
There will be no squabbling on Mount Olympus,
No Chthonian mutters of unrest,
But no other miracle, knows that by sundown
We shall have had a good Friday.
Sinful and weak, we demand a sacrifice, and this is what guarantees that we will in fact have a Good Friday. In “Nones,” the 3:00 pm hour devoted to remembering Christ’s death, we will deny our complicity in the murderous sacrifice: “All if challenged would reply / —“It was a monster with one red eye, / A crowd that saw him die, not I.” But we will know that this isn’t so, that we are as guilty as the actual executioners: “The hangman has gone to wash, the soldiers to eat: / We are left alone with our feat.”
Today, the Church looks hopefully towards Easter, when “we, too, may come to the picnic / With nothing to hide, join the dance / As it moves in perichoresis, / Turns about the abiding tree.” At that moment, we will experience “the instant of recollection,” and we will know the “plot” and “meaning” of the sacrifice.
But, Auden says, we are not there yet. What we do today is remember. Today, we remain at Calvary: “Shaken awake, facts are facts, / (And I shall know exactly what happened / Today between noon and three).”