Nocturne – Human experience within Auden’s universe

Auden’s poem Nocturne (1951) is very closely connected to his essay The Virgin and The Dynamo (published in the book The Dyer’s Hand, 1962). This strong connection is not only revealed formally, by referring in both works to the ‘faceless dynamo’, but also content wise in that he elaborates in both pieces on the topic of human experience as operating in the natural world of involuntary, recurrent events and the historical world of voluntary, irreversible events at the same time. However, in Nocturne Auden is much more specific, meaning that he particularly depicts his (the poets) experience of the world; in contrast to that in The Virgin and The Dynamo he rather addresses human experiences on a broad societal level. Furthermore I would say that in Nocturne the underlying question, as posed in both works, of why we should endow nature with a face is answered much more clearly than in The Virgin and The Dynamo. Therefore, it is worthwhile to discuss the poem in some detail.

In the first stanza of Nocturne Auden depicts the moon as referring to the natural world of involuntary, recurrent events that occur in cyclical time (the moon knows on which place it belongs every night). However, it hides this ‘real’ character in that it ‘avoids a mountain’s jagged prongs’ (Nocturne, first stanza). To the poet’s heart the moon is a muse, a ‘face’ worth watching. In this sense his heart cannot escape these mystical feelings for the moon; they are subject to involuntary judgement. This aspect shows that Auden identifies the poet’s heart with the natural world (second stanza). In contrast to that his mind, as a reflex to the heart, is subject to the historical world of voluntary events. This means that the mind realizes that the moon actually is just ‘a bunch of barren craters’ not having a connection to human life in that it does not care about humanity (third stanza). From this it follows that the poets heart (natural world) and mind (historical world) both make up his human experience (dualistic view). In this connection Mendelson identifies the notion that “[h]uman experience occurs in both these realms“ as being at the centre of Auden’s thinking in general (Mendelson, 2008, introduction). However, in the fourths stanza of Nocturne Auden states that his ‘tougher mind’ admits that both his heart and mind are merely ‘worshippers of force’ meaning they are involuntary. Hence this means that in nighttimes the natural world is dominant.

In realizing that the mysterious majesty of the Goddess (the moon) in fact is an impersonal, faceless natural force Auden regards the Venus to be the ‘dynamo in disguise’ (The Venus and The Dynamo, 1962, p. 63; Nocturne, fifth stanza). However, since these experiences are subject to by both a natural (heart) and a historical (mind) dimension, he is a functionary of confusion. This means his thought processes do not operate in a straight forward line but they are ambiguous, they are voluntary and involuntary at the same time (sixth stanza). In the seventh and the eighth stanza Auden elaborates on this thought in stating that once the ‘real’ face of the moon is revealed it is right to (again) endow it with a ‘face’. In this connection Auden emphasized in The Virgin and The Dynamo that is right to do so because after having seen her ‘real face’ – a world of masses that is not responsible for us in that its bunch of craters do not care – her provided face reminds us of our human duties (The Virgin and The Dynamo, 1962, pp. 62-63). However, Auden gives here no clear picture of how these human duties should be understood in particular. In the ninth stanza Auden gives examples for the potentially ambiguous character of such a face; hence it can be a ‘gushing lady’ or a ‘hang-dog’. These images function as a balance to the poets (his) own inner world and the world of the State which he described machinelike (tenth stanza). As one can notice here Auden, again, refers to the forces of the natural world of involuntary events (State) and the historical world of voluntary events.

In discussing Auden’s Nocturne in connection to The Virgin and The Dynamo, his viewpoint on the poet’s experience as operating in both the natural and the historical world is laid down. Once again it becomes obvious that his universe is not characterized by a straight forward line of (thought) processes but rather is subject to sometimes ambiguous forces. However, the straight forward line within this ambiguous conception is that Auden continuously tries to categorize the poet’s perception of the world. This tendency is also visible in other works such as The Poet and The City. As Sharp puts it, on a general level he “(…) enjoyed making lists and mapping out intellectual territory“(Sharp, 2004, p. 114). He explains this tendecy Audens’ in the way he was raised up; for his father was a classicists and medical scientists which means that an awareness of scientific method seems to have come to him ‘naturally’ (p. 115).


Auden, W. H. (1988). The complete works of W.H. Auden. Nocturne, pp. 584-585. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Auden, W. H. (1962). The Virgin and The Dynamo. In W.H. Auden & Mendelson, E. (Ed.). The Dyer’s Hand and other essays.

Mendelson, E. (Ed.) (2008). Prose and travel books in prose and verse. W.H. Auden Prose Part: Vol. III: 1949-1955. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Sharp, T. (2004). Auden’s prose In the Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden. New York: Cambridge University Press.

About this entry