What we know to be not possible,
Though time after time foretold
By wild hermits, by shaman and sybil
Gibbering in their trances,
Or revealed to a child in some chance rhyme
Like will and kill, comes to pass
Before we realize it: we are surprised
At the ease and speed of our deed
And uneasy: It is barely three,
Mid-afternoon, yet the blood
Of our sacrifice is already
Dry on the grass; we are not prepared
For silence so sudden and so soon;
The day is too hot, too bright, too still,
Too ever, the dead remains too nothing.
What shall we do till nightfall?
The wind has dropped and we have lost our public.
The faceless many who always
Collect when any world is to be wrecked,
Blown up, burnt down, cracked open,
Felled, sawn in two, hacked through, torn apart,
Have all melted away: not one
Of these who in the shade of walls and trees
Lie sprawled now, calmly sleeping,
Harmless as sheep, can remember why
He shouted or what about
So loudly in the sunshine this morning;
All if challenged would reply
-‘It was a monster with one red eye,
A crowd that saw him die, not I.-
The hangman has gone to wash, the soldiers to eat;
We are left alone with our feat.
The Madonna with the green woodpecker,
The Madonna of the fig-tree,
The Madonna beside the yellow dam,
Turn their kind faces from us
And our projects under construction,
Look only in one direction,
Fix their gaze on our completed work:
Pile-driver, concrete-mixer,
Crane and pick-axe wait to be used again,
But how can we repeat this?
Outliving our act, we stand where we are,
As disregarded as some
Discarded artifact of our own,
Like torn gloves, rusted kettles,
Abandoned branch-lines, worn lop-sided
Grindstones buried in nettles.
This mutilated flesh, our victim,
Explains too nakedly, too well,
The spell of the asparagus garden,
The aim of our chalk-pit game; stamps,
Birds’ eggs are not the same, behind the wonder
Of tow-paths and sunken lanes,
Behind the rapture on the spiral stair,
We shall always now be aware
Of the deed into which they lead, under
The mock chase and mock capture,
The racing and tussling and splashing,
The panting and the laughter,
Be listening for the cry and stillness
To follow after: wherever
The sun shines, brooks run, books are written,
There will also be this death.
Soon cool tramontana will stir the leaves,
The shops will re-open at four,
The empty blue bus in the empty pink square
Fill up and depart: we have time
To misrepresent, excuse, deny,
Mythify, use this event
While, under a hotel bed, in prison,
Down wrong turnings, its meaning
Waits for our lives: sooner than we would choose
Bread will melt, water will burn,
And the great quell begin, Abaddon
Set up his triple gallows
At our seven gates, fat Belial make
Our wives waltz naked; meanwhile
It would be best to go home, if we have a home,
In any case good to rest.
That our dreaming wills may seem to escape
This dead calm, wander instead
On knife edges, on black and white squares,
Across moss, baize, velvet, boards,
Over cracks and hillocks, in mazes
Of string and penitent cones,
Down granite ramps and damp passages,
Through gates that will not relatch
And doors marked Private, pursued by Moors
And watched by latent robbers,
To hostile villages at the heads of fjords,
To dark chateaux where wind sobs
In the pine-trees and telephones ring,
Inviting trouble, to a room,
Lit by one weak bulb, where our Double sits
Writing and does not look up.
That, while we are thus away, our own wronged flesh
May work undisturbed, restoring
The order we try to destroy, the rhythm
We spoil out of spite: valves close
And open exactly, glands secrete,
Vessels contract and expand
At the right moment, essential fluids
Flow to renew exhausted cells,
Not knowing quite what has happened, but awed
By death like all the creatures
Now watching this spot, like the hawk looking down
Without blinking, the smug hens
Passing close by in their pecking order,
The bug whose view is balked by grass.
Or the deer who shyly from afar
Peer through chinks in the forest.



The central poem of the collection, Nones, focuses on the time following Christ’s death on the cross. The speaker is surprised by how quickly Christ’s sacrifice is over, how quickly the crowd disperses and returns to daily business. The body of Christ is only too revealing of our efforts to control matters in small ways (e.g gardens, stamp collections, etc.). Now, no matter what we do in this world of mock play and tryst, we will be haunted by his death.  We have time to try and symbolize/ignore what has happened, but “[s]ooner than we would choose” judgment is coming for us and our demonic, eroticized world.  The last two stanzas of the poem look at the division between our wills and our body (“our Double”).  Our wills may seek to avoid responsibility, but our bodies will nonetheless be “awed/ By death like all the creatures.


Auden reading the poem

All 7 poems in Auden’s classic HORAE CANONICAE

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