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Horae Canonicae

Friday, 29 March, 2013

While far from being a direct account of the hours before Christ’s death, W. H. Auden’s Horae Canonicae, is a reflection on the events and importance of Good Friday. It comprises seven poems, each corresponding to one of the offices of the monastic day. The work begins with be Lauds, a joyful song heralding the new day. Then comes Prime, about our innocence at first waking, though a death is already foreshadowed. Terce is next and in Auden’s lyric for the third office of Good Friday the hangman and the judge set off to work not knowing who their victim will be. This is followed by Sext, which explores the idea of civilization giving rise to authority and the crowd, each of which is complicit in the death which follows in Nones. The evening office poem is Vespers, and Horae Canonicae concludes with Compline, the last office of the monastic day.

After shaking paws with his dog,
(Whose bark would tell the world that he is always kind,)
The hangman sets off briskly over the heath;
He does not know yet who will be provided
To do the high works of Justice with:
Gently closing the door of his wife’s bedroom,
(Today she has one of her headaches)
With a sigh the judge descends his marble stair;
He does not know by what sentence
He will apply on earth the Law that rules the stars:
And the poet, taking a breather
Round his garden before starting his eclogue,
Does not know whose Truth he will tell.

W.H. Auden


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