Lightness and Weight

A counter-image, anyway,
To balance with its lack of weight
” (WH Auden, Nocturne)

I have been struggling with these two lines for a day now and I still don’t have a very clear idea as to what Auden means by lack of weight. Weight in the Nietzschean sense, would imply the doctrine of the Eternal Return which dictates that all things in existence recur over and over again for all eternity. This is to say that human history is a preset circle without progress, the same events arising perpetually and doomed never to alter or to improve. Existence is thus weighty because it stands fixed in an infinite cycle. This weightiness is “the heaviest of burdens”, for “if every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross.” (Milan Kundera, Unbearable Lightness of Being) At the same time, it is necessary for any event to occur in the cycle of events exactly as it has always occurred for the cycle to be identical; consequently, everything takes on an eternally fixed meaning. This fact prevents one from believing things to be fleeting and worthless.

In this sense, the Numerical World of the Dynamo composed of “recurrent events, describable, not in words but in terms of numbers, or rather in algebraic terms” should be heavy as opposed to the Historical World of the Virgin composed of “singular events, describable only in terms of speech.” (WH Auden, Virgin and the Dynamo) Something which does not forever recur has its brief existence, and, once it is complete, the universe goes on existing, utterly indifferent to the completed phenomenon. One can explore Milan Kundera’s take on Lightness, “Life which disappears once and for all, which does not return is without weight…and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime…means nothing.” (Milan Kundera, Unbearable Lightness of Being) Each life is insignificant; every decision does not matter. Since decisions do not matter, they are “light”: they do not tie us down.

The poem in a certain way captures a war between these two worlds. Taking a simple case of perception of Moon, Auden tries to capture how the world of Virgin is so different from the world of the Dynamo. As a poet, he is stuck in the middle of this war as a small functionary whose dreams are vast, unscrupulous and confused. His attempt at rationalizing this war occurs in the “real” world. As the beginning of the 7th stanza seems to suggest that supposing that the poet is in real world and his face is real and “not a myth or a machine,” then the face of Moon should look like ‘x’, a variable in algebraic terms with features that he has “actually seen”. This also seems like an attempt to humanize the Moon into a face.

Auden creates a combined interpretation of the moon for the real world, implying that the two worlds co-exist in the real world. The poet plays with notion of the variable in the scientific world suggesting that in real world, the moon despite being a variable in ‘x’ has a constant meaning for him. It could take the form of a “gushing lady” or a “hang-dog”. Since, its form does not matter; the notion of the moon lacks weight. It implies a “counter-image”, an alternative state of being in the real world which is lighter as compared to the scientific one in the poet’s world with his motor-car and all the engines of the state.


Kundera, Milan (1984). Unbearable Lightness of Being. Toronto: 68 Publishers
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.

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