The Virgin & the Dynamo

As Auden himself says about writing a criticism in the Foreword of The Dyer’s Hand ‘the relation between form and content is arbitrary’ (p. xi). He also indicates that he dislikes this lack of freedom; and that for that reason he prefers to limit his pieces to ‘set of notes’ (p. xii). I think in The Virgin & The Dynamo this struggle is clear too.

            Auden starts his essay much like it just is some notes, which does not need much further ado. He claims there are two worlds, followed by a brief explanation. Subsequently he moves on to claim there are three kinds of pluralities; and in this ‘note-like’ style he continues throughout the essay. Nonetheless one can see that, especially towards to end this ‘distanced’ style based on structured numbering vanishes a bit and he does seem to reconcile with the more conventional larger pieces of text.

            Auden uses the terms ‘Dynamo’ and ‘Virgin’ after Henry Adams who wrote the essay ‘The Dynamo and the Virgin, in 1905[1] (Adams, 1927). By inverting the title Auden already makes clear that he does not agree with Adams’ ideas and that he thinks things are rather the other way around. Auden hints at Adams’ work only marginally, but his disagreement with Adams shows through the whole essay which can be seen as a rather direct reaction to Adams. Two of the points in which Auden’s essay is a clear reaction to Adams are: Auden’s idea of two worlds, and Auden’s view that Adams unjust worships the dynamo.

            To keep this commentary brief I will not go too much into detail, but I will rather only make clear why I consider these two issues worth mentioning. First Auden’s two worlds: in Adams view there is only one world, and it is shifting towards a more mechanized, and by science and technology dominated mode. Auden, being an artist, does not seem to appreciate this view, and while he acknowledges that there is also this world of the dynamo, it is not the only world, and art does still play a role. Unlike Adams’ perception, Auden recognizes that the art and religion are also important.

            Secondly, Auden is right to say that Adams worships the world of the dynamo. In Adams essay there almost shows an obsession for the technology driven new world and he even speaks of a revolution that is upcoming. Auden makes very clear though that he believes Adams should not be worshipping Venus, which represents the dynamo in Auden’s view, but rather the Virgin.

            Throughout the whole essay Auden seems in search of validation for his poems, and in search for a world in which poems are of use and appreciation. Auden makes clear that in, what he calls the ‘Historical World of the Virgin’, there is (still) space for an unmechanized world. If the world would be too patterned the result would be totalitarianism, but, according to The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden, Auden sees art, in its gratuitousness, as providing an ‘“analogy” to “paradise”’ (Bozorth, 2004, p.185). Therewith Auden consciously creates a space for art (and thus his own literature) in society[2].  

            A final remark on the relationship between the essay and the poem (After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics) is that, while Auden claims in the essay that there are two real worlds, his own poetry shows that they are not as separate as he claims. After all – and this of course depends on whether, and how the right people read his work – Auden directly states the question whether or not humans should politicize nature. This question could make his poetry get involved in the mechanical world as well, although it might be said that Auden does not actually call for interference or changes. By saying that the answer to his question will come over time he indirectly asks not to interfere, and to let the world of the dynamo evolve autonomously, even to the point of self-destruction.


Adams, H. (1927). The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography – popular edition (edited by H.C. Lodge). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Auden, W.H. (1962). The Dyer’s Hand: and other essays. London: Faber and Faber.

Bozorth, R.R. (2004). Auden: love, sexuality, desire. In S. Smith (Ed.) The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden (pp. 175-187). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[1] The essay is dated on 1900 (possibly only referring to a chronologically placed moment in the Adams’ life); however the last line of the essay refers to a date in 1901 indicating that it was not finished in 1900. The preface of the book mentions that it was written in 1905 and printed in 1906.

[2] Perhaps one should not speak of society since Auden distinguishes between a crowd, a society, and a community and my definition of society here might interfere with Auden’s intention. A better term would possibly be ‘world’, but since Auden sees two worlds – both equally real – and art only situated in the historical world of the virgin this is also problematic. Maybe ‘universe’ would do…


About this entry