Analysis: The Virgin & The Dynamo (Aline)

W. H. Auden’s essay The Virgin and the Dynamo is part of the book W. H. Auden. The Dyer’s Hand and other essays (1962). The general theme, as addressed both in the introduction and the essay in particular is on the role of art, or more specifically of poetry. Before discussing various aspects of this essay I first will shortly elaborate on more general points of the book as posed in the introduction of the book; in doing so the framework in which the essay is to be understood is highlighted.

1. The Dyer’s Hand and other essays

Already a part of the title of his book, namely The Dyer’s Hand, reveals an interesting connection by means of which Auden places himself to a certain extent in line with William Shakespeare. This is because he seems to refer or to ‘borrow’ the term ‘the dyer’s hand’ from Shakespeare’s Sonnet CXl, O! for my sake do you with Fortune chide:

“O! For my sake do you with Fortune chide

The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,

That did not better for my life provide

Than public means which public manners breeds.

Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,

And almost thence my nature is subdu’d

To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:

Pity me, then, and wish I were renew’d;

Whilst, like a willing patient, I will drink

No bitterness that I will bitter think,

Nor double penance, to correct correction.

Pity me, then, dear friend, and I assure ye

Even that your pity is enough to cure me”

(The Oxford Shakespeare: Poems, 1914).

Scholars since the eighteenth century (e.g. Edmund Malone) have pointed out that in this sonnet there is a direct reference to Shakespeare’s career in the theater. However, I will not delve here into detailed analysis of this Shakespearian sonnet as a whole; the metaphor of ‘the dyer’s hand’ in itself reveals a significant element of Shakespeare’s understanding of poetry. Thus as Holt, in the review of Shakespeare by Mark Van Doren, emphasizes for Shakespeare poetry and life are one; even though he had an interest in “[a]ll the other ways of organizing experience, philosophical belief, or scientific research he never touched and gave no sign of wishing to touch. The dyer’s hand was completely immersed in what it worked in” (Holt, 1939, p. 30). In this sense one can understand a deep emotional commitment by Shakespeare to his work, ascribing the role of art a major significance within his life. A similar relationship can be identified in Auden’s approach to art as visible in the introduction to The Dyer’s Hand and other essays.

Hence, for Auden the art of writing primarily is characterized by emotional commitment: “All the poems I have written were written for love (…)” (Auden, 1962, p. xi). In this sense he regards art criticism, for instance in form of giving lectures, only as a means to gain a living because most seldom the form of these lectures conforms to content, meaning his thoughts. He follows that “[a] poem must be a closed system, but there is something, in my opinion, lifeless, even false, about systematic criticism” (p. xii). Thus, for Auden art for its own sake seems to be an essential premise.

Connected to this conviction is his belief that ‘poetry makes nothing happen’ (Smith, 2004, p. 4), a poet only becomes what the readers make of him (Snyder, 1983, p. 29) and, in line with Brechtian didactic drama, ‘you cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables (Grigson, 1935, p. 18). These kinds of parables, can both be communicated by means of poetry and dramatic theater and they are a recurring theme in Auden’s and Shakespeare’s approach to poetry. Thus “(…) no performance of a Shakespeare play can ever give us the dramatic illusion that we are watching real people: we are always actually aware that we are watching actors clumsily scrambling after a life far out of their reach “ (Holt, 1939, p. 31). Auden’s poems, too, have these Shakespearian and Brechtian atmospheric effects of scenes. As described by Boly, Auden uses a technique of mimetic substitution that replaced the description of a subject with a summary of the norms which can be found in its representation (Boly, 2004, p. 149).

In another essay in The Dyer’s Hand Auden emphasizes that critics of Shakespeare would reveal more about themselves than about Shakespeare, but “(…) perhaps this is the great value of  drama of the Shakespearian kind, namely, that whatever he may see taking place on the stage, its final effect on each spectator is a self-revelation” (Auden, 1962, p. 182). As Snyder finds, the self that Auden bought to this Shakesperian mirror was a poet and later in his life, from about the 40s and 50s onwards, a Christian (Snyder, 1983, p. 29). Thus, after his conversion at this time he still needed to figure out its implications on his understanding of art. As Auden pointed out to a friend, The Dyer’s Hand developed in this period and therefore was all about Christianity and Art (Carpenter, 1981, p. 404). In the following I will discuss in how far this search for the (Christian) role of art is addressed by Auden in the essay The Virgin and The Dynamo.

2. The role of art in The Virgin and The Dynamo

In the introduction of this essay Auden puts a quote by the writer Virginia Woolf which already sets the tone for the essay as a whole and therefore is to be regarded with careful attention.

In this quote Woolf considers the human world to be a construct of algebraic terms making  ‘a perfect dwelling-place’ (Auden, 1962, p. 61). One can make sense of this statement by placing it into her view on science in general. As such, her father’s interest in astronomy can be said to have significantly influenced her own interest in this topic. Thus, as Henry points out, her later writing was very much influenced by aspects of “(…) humanity’s minute existence in relation ‘to the immensity of the sky’” (Henry, 2003, p. 3). In this context one can draw a parallel to Auden’s own interest in matter of astronomy in relation to aspects of humanity, depicted, for instance, in his poem After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics (1965). Hence, in referring to this writer and the quote in particular, Auden seems to set the general topic of The Virgin and The Dynamo to be aspects of human existence in relation to those of science.

This impression is proven when having a closer look at the origin of the title of his essay. Thus, as Mendelson points out – and also becoming obvious on the following pages of his essay itself –  Auden borrowed the distinction between the Dynamo and the Virgin from Henry Adam’s Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (Mendelson, 2007, introduction). In this context the Dynamo stands for the natural world of involuntary, recurrent events whereas the Virgin depicts the historical world of voluntary, unique events (Auden, 1962, pp. 61-62). But as Auden states, Adams wrongly thought that the Venus and the Virgin of Chartres[1] were one and the same persons; in fact, as Auden wrote in his poem Nocturne (1951) “(…) this goddess was not the unique historical Mary but the cyclical lunar Venus, ‘Whose majesty is but the mask/ That hides a faceless dynamo’” (Auden in Mendelson, 2007, introduction). As such the “(…) Venus is the Dynamo in disguise, a symbol for an impersonal natural force, and Adams’ nostalgic preference for Chartres to Chicago was nothing but aestheticism; he thought the disguise was prettier than the reality, but it was the Dynamo he worshiped, not the Virgin” (Auden, 1962, p. 63). On the other hand Auden also states that it is right to endow Nature with a real, unique face, as for instance the face of the Madonna, because in this act we are reminded by out duty towards nature; however, we may only do so after having become aware of her actually wearing a pagan mask, meaning that she merely is ‘a world of masses’ without any responsibility to us (pp. 62-63).

Any world, according to Auden, is made of three different kinds of pluralities, namely a Crowd, a Society and a Community. In this sense a crowd is, unlike a society or community, subject to arithmetical relations among its members. In contrast to that a society is characterized by a mode of behaviour as relating power and a love of its own system. In difference a community is characterized by all members being free and equal, united by a common love of something other than themselves and it must be embodied in a society (pp. 63-64). But when rival communities compete for becoming embodied in the same society there is unfreedom and disorder; a state of total unfreedom and disorder would be Hell, whereas in contrast a perfect order united by best love would be Paradise (pp. 64-65). In this context Auden’s Christian convictions as laid down in the first part of this discussion, are clearly visible; however, at the same time these Christian convictions are combined with scientific insights nourishing the underlying implication that for Auden Christian belief is not self-contained. This especially becomes clear in his statement “(…) without Science, we should always worship false gods” (p. 62).

In the following Auden describes human consciousness as being a unity-in-tension between three modes of awareness which show a significant similarity to Sigmund Freud’s model of psychoanalysis (p. 65). In this context he contrasts modes of consciousness of poets and scientists whereas he emphasizes that poets, other than scientists, have no intended control or consciousness about what a poem will be until it has been written (pp. 66-67). It is comprised of recollected occasions of feelings in the form of certain laws of the verbal society such as iambic pentameters (pp. 67-68). But at the same time a poem “[l]ike a person (…) is unique and addresses the reader personally. On the other hand, like a natural being and unlike a historical person, it cannot lie” (p. 68). The result of such a poem, since it draws on feelings embodying all members of the same community, is that society and community are one system of love (p. 69).

Auden describes the poet creating a poem as being analogous to “(…) God’s activity in creating man after his own image. It is not an imitation, for if it were so, the poet would be able to create like God ex nihilo; instead, he requires pre-existing occasions of feeling and a pre-existing language out of which to create” (p. 70). Since man knows the evil as well as the good, this is reflected in poems and in this sense they are an attempt of verbal analogy to a paradisal state of harmony (p. 71). Finally, a poem is rendered to be beautiful to the degree it succeeds to reconcile these contradictory feelings of good and evil in mutual relation to each other (p. 71). In the sense that the artist creates beauty, a paradisal condition he is regarded to be good or as God.

3. Final remarks on Auden’s approach to art, science and religion

Especially in this latter part of the essay Auden’s search for the (Christian) role of art as laid down in the first section of my discussion, becomes visible. He tries to combine his existing approach to art with his newly emerging values of Christian belief. Spender explains this ‘struggle’ of Auden’s aesthetic approach to religion as follws: “His problem has always been to shift the center of his dogmatic ways of regarding experience from himself to some objective authority, so that he himself becomes a part of what is judged, and not just the centre of his own system’ (Spender, 1964, p. 35). I would agree with this explanation, however, I also think – in reference to The Dyer’s Hand and other essays in general and in reference to The Virgin and The Dynamo in particular – that science in this struggle becomes a significant arbiter helping to negotiate between convictions of art and religion. In this sense “[w]ithout Art, we could have no notion of Liberty; without Science no notion of Equality; without either, therefore, no notion of justice” (Auden, 1962, p. 62).


Auden, W. H.

(1965). After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics. Retrieved February 2, 2010 from

Carpenter, H.

(1981). W. H. Auden: A Biography. London: Unwin Paperbacks.

Grigson, G.

(1935). Psychology and Art Today’. In Grigson, G. (ed.) The Arts Today, 1935.

Henry, H.

(2003). Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science. The Aesthetics of Astronomy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holt, H.

(1939). The Dye’s Hand. Shakespeare. By Mark Van Doren. In E. Mendelson (ed.). The Complete Works of W. H. Auden. Prose Vol. ll, 1939-1955.

Mendelson, E. (Ed.)

(2007). W. H. Auden: Prose, Volume lll, 1949-1955. Princeton University Press.

Introductory chapter received February 8, 2010 from

Smith, S. (Ed.)

(2004). The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Snyder, S.

(1983). Auden, Shakespeare, And The Defence Of Poetry. In Welly, S. (Ed.)

Shakespeare Survey. Volume 36, Shakespeare in the Twentieth Century.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spender, S.

(1964). W. H. Auden and His Poetry. In Spears, M. K. (Ed.). Auden: A Collection of critical essays. Englewood Cliffs.

[1] The Virgin of Chartres refers to a legend surrounding the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres. According to this legend the cathedral does house since 876 a tunic that was said to have belonged to the Blessed Virgin Mary  (Wikipedia)

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