Faces inhabiting Auden’s poetry (Jeremias)

Faces in ‘Nocturne’

As mentioned before, the ‘faceless dynamo’ is a re-occuring theme in those texts by Auden, which elaborate on the distinction between the natural and the historical world (thanks, Ranjit).

In the poem ‘Nocturne’, Auden playfully alters the theme of ‘the face’ with some instances of anonymity, such as the ‘mask’. Several times Auden applies the same dismantling move on some usually beloved and familiar faces. At first he reveals the moon – just admired with sentiments which a night sky habitually evokes – as a “faceless dynamo”. A few stanzas later, after Auden established his anti-romantic scepticism and actually supposed that his own face “is real”, another face is depersonalized. Afterwards he employs the notion of the neighbor, as another face inhabiting his poem. In another text, Auden states the neighbor to be “a unique and irreplaceable being” The Virgin and The Dynamo (p. 62). However, this personal and individual connotation of the neighbor, which even a more straight-forward mind would expect to be unmasked, is equated to numerical terms in ‘ Nocture’(thanks, Rick).

Faces in Auden’s poetry

So far this is not a new interpretation of ‘Nocturne’ and I will not go into the meaning the faces have in this poem. But putting ‘the face’ in the centre of our interpretations about ‘ Nocture’, I was wondering if such a reading could also take our enterprise, Auden & Science, a little further. Indeed, ‘the face’often accurs simultaneously with the reflections on rationalist thinking in Auden’s poetry.

He establishes this connection in “After Reading a Child’s Guide to Physics”, in his essay “The poet and the city” and in the poem “Spain” (1937). (By the way, the latter work is famous for its approvement of revolutionary violence against spanish fascism: “The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder”. He revised those critical lines later, I believe).

Let me elaborate a bit on the way ‘the face’ occurs in these works, which is, of course, not a complete interpretation of all faces inhabiting Auden’s poetry.

‘My face’ versus ‘big science’

The narrator’s face is presumed to be “real” in “After Reading (…)”. It is not of indeterminate gruel, as modern physics would suggest. The very same confrontation of scientific abstraction with intuitive realism Auden makes in ‘Nocturne’: “Supposing though, my face is real, And not a my or a machine (…)

Violent faces versus fascism

            In “Spain” Auden entertains a very different understanding of the face, it seems. In the moment where the poem is building up its angry mood, which are the middle stanzas of the relatively long poem, “our faces” are a greedy, violent collective:

 Spain (1937)



On the arid, square, that fragment nipped off from hot

Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;

On that tableland scored by rivers,

Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise andalive. For the fears which made us respond

To the medicine ad, and the brochure of winter cruises

Have become invading battalions;

And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.

Madrid is the heart oir moments of tenderness blossom

As the ambulance and the sandbag;

Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.


In “Spain” faces are plural and together form a “institute-face”. Without going into interpretative details, one can easily acknowledge that faces have a comparable function in a three poems mentioned so far. They are confrontative. One the one hand, the personal face symbolically opposing a scientific worldview, on the other hand, many faces, opposing a fascist worldview and regime (and apparantally also a capitalist worldview as the notion of the “chain-store” might indicate).

Another characteristic of ‘the face’ in both “Spain” and “Nocturne” is the “face as such”. While this is the literal formulation signifying the “neighbor” in the latter poem, a similar namelessness is connoted in the strange notion of the “institute-face”, which here is an objectified conglomeration of faces opposing Franco.

The reminding faces

Also “The Poet & The City”, a rather social theoretical essay embedding poetry in modern (scientific) society, contains “faces” in its concluding paragraphs:

“So long as artists exist, makin what they please and think they ought to make, even if it is not terribly good, even if it appeals to only a handful of people, they remind the Management of something managers need to be reminded of, namely, that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers, that Homo Laborans is also Homo Ludens.” (88)

Here the faces of the employee’s oppose the utilitarian logic which governs the rule of Management. As a commentator, Auden warns not to let this logic colonize the world of work completely. Besides the confrontative meaning, I have shown above, faces apparantelly also have a reminding function in some of Auden’s writing. Just as in the shaving scence in “Reading a Child’s Guide (…)”, men “need to be reminded of” the dangers of anonymity implied in rationalistic thinking.


Also in his essay writing Auden uses the notion of ‘the face’ to give a personal flavour to his humanist scepticism. Also here, faces oppose a potentially dangerous kind of thinking. Be it scientific or economic thinking, in Auden’s work the human face symbolizes a sceptic attitude towards rationalism, even when he himself employs an anonymous notion of the ‘face as such’. This ambigious tension, which one could misjudge as a contradiction undermining his own anti-rationalism, is representing Auden’s deep belief that even science itself, also a numerical (“the value x”) or sociological view (“the institute-face”, “the crowd”) on faces, can help to prevent rationalism from running out of hand (fascism, scienticism). This anti-rationalist attitude, and relativist view on science is often symbolized by the notion of ‘the face’, it seems.

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