“Terce”

“Terce,” the second of seven poems constituting WH Auden’s “Horae Canonicae: Immolatus vicerit”:

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.

Sprites of hearth and store-room, godlings
Of professional mysteries, the Big Ones
Who can annihilate a city,
Cannot be bothered with this moment: we are left,
Each to his secret cult, now each of us
Prays to an image of his image of himself:
‘Let me get through this coming day
Without a dressing down from a superior,
Being worsted in a repartee,
Or behaving like an ass in front of the girls;
Let something exciting happen,
Let me find a lucky coin on a sidewalk.
Let me hear a new funny story.’

At this hour we all might be anyone:
It is only our victim who is without a wish,
Who knows already (that is what
We can never forgive. If he knows the answers,
Then why are we here, why is there even dust?),
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.

(October 1953)

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