W.H. Auden Clearly States the Problem

There is a special place in my heart for the poet W.H. Auden (See my previous post on The More Loving One here) because for my dollar he deals, as poets go, most directly with the conundrum of the human spirit in the age of technology. And we can hardly say to have faced up to this problem in our own time. There are articles published all the time which nobody reads about the disturbing correlations between the use of social media with depression and anxiety, especially among young people, and it’s no wonder why. But things are not poised to get any better any time soon. Quite the opposite. And as time goes on we continue to come up with canned excuses for keeping certain types of technology in our lives which only act as a weight around our neck. We must obviously bow to the god of convenience.

One of my favorite meditations on this subject is Auden’s preface to The Sea and the Mirror, a poetical commentary on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In it Auden questions whether or not science and art are sufficient to fill our desperate need for meaning. O what authority gives existence its surprise? / Science is happy to answer / That ghosts who haunt our lives / Are handy with string and wire. But this is hardly satisfying. Our wonder, our terror remains. If we turn to art then for an answer still we will meet The lion’s mouth whose hunger / No metaphors can fill.

I am sometimes put off by poetry because to me there is nothing worse than trying too hard. And there is a lot of poetry that tries very hard to be poetry and that comes across in reading. But Auden is one of the exceptions. His style is effortless. I don’t think there is one line where he takes liberty with my trust as a reader. There are no easy answers. And I find a good dose of old-fashioned congenial Britishness is never a bad companion on one’s quest for meaning anyway. Enjoy:

The aged catch their breath,

For the nonchalant couple go

Waltzing across the tightrope

As if there were no death

Or hope of falling down;

The wounded cry as the clown

Doubles his meaning, and O

How the dear little children laugh

When the drums roll and the lovely

Lady is sawn in half.


O what authority gives

Existence its surprise?

Science is happy to answer

That the ghosts who haunt our lives

Are handy with mirrors and wire,

That song and sugar and fire

Courage and come-hither eyes

Have a genius for taking pains.

But how does one think up a habit?

Our wonder, our terror remains.

Art opens the fishiest eye

To the Flesh and the Devil who heat

The Chamber of Temptation

Where heroes roar and die.

We are wet with sympathy now;

Thanks for the evening; but how

Shall we satisfy when we meet,

Between Shall-I and I-Will,

The lion’s mouth whose hunger

No metaphors can fill?


Well, who in his own backyard

Has not opened his heart to the smiling

Secret he cannot quote?

Which goes to show that the Bard

Was sober when he wrote

That this world of fact we love

Is unsubstantial stuff;

All the rest is silence

On the other side of the wall;

And the silence ripeness,

And the ripeness all.


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W.H. Auden’s The More Loving One: Simplicity & Depth


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.

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Works cited:

  1. Smith, Alexander McCall: What W.H. Auden Can Do For You. September 2013.

  2. Mendelson, Edward: Later Auden. April 1999.
  3. Fuller, John: W.H. Auden: A Commentary. August 2000.