W.H. AUDEN’S REPUTATION as one of the greatest poets of the 20th century is rarely questioned but many critics prefer ‘early Auden’ to ‘later Auden’. So much is the division between early and later that the demarcation even creeps into Auden’s own literary estate, as Edward Mendelson, Auden’s own literary executor, entitled his critical biographies of Auden “Early Auden” and “Later Auden.” The difference is classically summed up by the American poet Philip Larkin who criticized the ‘later Auden’ for ‘turning his back on political and social engagement in favor of the self-indulgent and the frivolous.’
“The More Loving One,” was written in 1957 when Auden was 50 and is considered to be one of Auden’s better later poems but has all the elements that some critics don’t like about his later work in general. There are no nods to his early far leftism (or any politics at all). It’s a poem about unrequited love, of all hackneyed subjects. John Fuller, in his “W.H. Auden: A Commentary,” says of “The More Loving One,” that it is ‘merely an extravagant way of coming to terms with unreciprocated love.’
Like the general critiques of later Auden, I think this take on “The More Loving One,” is unfair, or at least incomplete. Later Auden probably was frivolous and extravagant but “The More Loving One,” is upstream of politics, and is, in my opinion, more profound for it. And it’s not just a poem about love. It’s about our place in the universe and how that human idea has evolved over time. These are questions that can be asked and have been asked in any time, by anyone.
“The More Loving One,” is a series of couplets linked together with an AABB rhyme scheme, told from the 1st person point of view. This 1st person method is something Auden used in many of his most famous poems, (September 1, 1939; As I Walked Out One Evening, etc.) putting himself at ‘the moving center’ of his world. This gives the work a personal feeling and when read out loud can make the reader feel as if they are at the moving center of Auden’s world: going into a dive bar, walking on Bristol St, or looking up at the stars.
Don’t let the simple structure fool you. “The More Loving One,” is deceptively complex.
The first couplet de-romanticizes star gazing:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
Stars are not the anthropomorphic gods/characters the Greeks superimposed upon them. They do not tell our fate. They are impersonal incidental fixtures of nature. The observer looking at the stars in this poem presupposes a modern scientific worldview. The stars are indifferent to us, beautiful as they are. But as Auden expresses the stars’ indifference to human activity, he uses ‘go to hell,’: a casual phrase expressive of human indifference which doubles as a sly religious injunction.
The second couplet grounds the observer and the reader, locating consciousness on earth:
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
But it also informs the first couplet. Does the “I” looking up at the stars dread the stars’ indifference? It wasn’t clear at first.
The third couplet raises a question which expands these considerations into a new theme: unrequited love:
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
As humankind moved from ancient to modern times, we ‘discovered’ nature does not love us back. Auden is imagining this as a kind of classic love story. We are the spurned lover. Nature is the indifferent object of our affection. But in this is a kind of revelation: consciousness, being the sole enterprise of biologically ‘living’ things, is rare, and therefore valuable.
Would we give up this valuable consciousness in return for the dread, the heartbreak of loneliness?
Auden answers in the fourth couplet:
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
This is Tennyson’s famous line—Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all—as more than a riff on romance. Auden states it as a kind of universal law. Love is more valuable than indifference in a lover or in Nature. Even at the price of disappointment in either case.
THE THIRD STANZA continues to blend these two interdependent concepts so that it never becomes quite clear whether this is a poem about romance that uses Nature as a metaphor, or whether this is a poem about Nature that uses romance as a metaphor:
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Auden overtly states his admiration for the indifferent stars in the fifth couplet while simultaneously calling it into question (“Admirer as I think I am”) which again smuggles in both ways of reading the poem. Is he getting over love lost? Are the stars a metaphor for an irretrievable human beauty he must learn to live without? Or is he feeling the loss of personal affection at discovering the demystified scientific picture of the universe?
Whichever it is, the doubts reach a personal level in the second couplet of the third quatrain: “I cannot, now I see them, say,” calls on the first couplet. We’re reminded that this whole train of thought is present tense. He is “Looking up at the stars” now and having all these thoughts now and upon remembering the previous day he cannot say he “missed one terribly[…]” In other words he admires the stars while he looks at them but does he really love them when it seems he doesn’t miss them?
Is this the old lover seen randomly in the marketplace after many years—still beautiful—awakening memories that are mistaken for feelings?
Or are the stars ghosts of old mythologies? Dead effigies to Zeus, Hercules, & Andromeda—disenchanted by modern science?
Or is it both?
THE LAST STANZA does not abandon the previous three in theme but does shift focus. Science is taken on as the new mythology, pivoting from the anthropomorphisms of ancient paganism to the final objective scientific event: the heat death of stars, and in this pivoting of subject, Auden also pivots to a future when stars will no longer be visible to human eyes.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
THROUGH WHAT SEEMS to be a simply structured aggrandizement of stargazing or unrequited love, W.H. Auden weaves together two metaphors that seem to be incompatible on the surface but were always meant to be together: Love & Nature. Modern science—or the world transparent to reason, i.e., Nature as it really is—has put old ways of interpreting the world on trial. Old story recedes. A new one replaces it. We are like a bug that continually sheds it’s skin. We moderns have adapted to our demystified world. We are used to it. We feel it’s ‘total dark sublime.’ But for those who remember the stars, it may take a little time.
Interested in W.H. Auden’s writing and want to support the site?
Check out Collected Poems below.
Smith, Alexander McCall: What W.H. Auden Can Do For You. September 2013.
- Mendelson, Edward: Later Auden. April 1999.
- Fuller, John: W.H. Auden: A Commentary. August 2000.