A Thought on Auden’s “The More Loving One”

The More Loving One
W.H. Auden

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

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.

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.

Comment:

1. Into the night the speaker stares, musing to himself alone. He seems to blame himself for how he feels, how he reacts. His first words are a bitter reproach of inanimate objects:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell…

Staring out into space, he can find no solace. He’s getting angrier, and has to talk himself into moderation. Hence, a reproach of his own feelings:

But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

He can see the problem with his own anger. It may be worse than indifference, as he resides on a planet where people skin each other alive for no reason other than to incite terror. Yet this is a less than convincing argument. He’s trying to moderate himself, sure. But doesn’t hatred become particularly cold, particularly egregious, because it takes on an aspect of indifference? We use phrases like “lock him up and throw away the key” to express our hatred for those we don’t even want to think about.

2. The poem does and does not engage the more abstract issue, whether indifference is worse than hate. The speaker implies strongly why any of this was ever uttered. There’s some kind of rejection involved, some kind of broken relationship or broken beginnings of a relationship:

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

The easiest reading, for me, of stars burning with “a passion for us we could not return” is trying to get a crush to return one’s affection. A failure to have one’s affection returned becomes wounded pride. The speaker nicely throws away his pride, his anger: “If equal affection cannot be, / Let the more loving one be me.”

All the same, the easiest reading doesn’t quite square with the enormity of the opening stanza. “Indifference is the least / We have to dread from man or beast” is a larger, more interesting, more questionable claim. While one can say that the stars bear witness to a certain justice in not burning passionately for anything, it isn’t clear a great truth finds itself elaborated at this point. The speaker resolves himself to be better, to be more loving, to moderate his emotions. But that doesn’t mean his pride is entirely misplaced. Love is directly connected to wanting to be known and appreciated. It cannot be self-sacrifice or self-improvement every step of the way. Hate, as awful as it is, can involve some sort of recognition, something that corresponds more to love than indifference does to either.

3. Auden’s speaker begins to muse on how exactly we appreciate or regard anything. Here he is, looking at the night sky, musing on stars as objects of wonder. And yet:

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’s speaker seems to locate an indifference specific to love. Part of the recognition we want in being loved involves taking someone’s care and consistency for granted. We proclaim ourselves “admirers” in order to impose on another. Exactly how much “love” we show in love is an open question.

This doesn’t really do justice to the speaker’s anger or situation, though. At some point, being disappointed because one tries to love is a real thing. It hurts, and rightly so, because there’s a lot worse than love, even if it is selfish. Indifference and hate are bad things, to say the least. They have helped make some very short lives very, very terrible. Yeah, the speaker hasn’t been consistent in loving every moment of his waking self. He still knows what he will miss:

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.

You can hear an elongated sigh coursing through this stanza. Indifference really is awful and to be dreaded. One might get used to something else, beautiful in its own way. One might end up loving that, too, if indeed that is the same as “feel[ing] its total dark sublime.” The speaker seems to be realizing that while he has to moderate himself, there is no rational answer to being disappointed. It’s something one has to go through, precisely because one wanted to love. It means that adolescent, immature love, for all its stupid, romantic aspirations, is what we’re stuck with here on earth. To ask for any other sort of love is to try and look at an empty sky, to try to pretend that nothing matters is the same as everything matters. Our lives and loves can never be so general.

2 Comments

  1. I dont think you get the poem.
    Indifference and love as described in the poem are not the emotions you seem to summon when presented with the labels”love” and “indifference”.I dont think you have examined your roots

  2. Yeah, I think you miss the boat a bit here on Auden’s intention. Remember, “if equal affection cannot be” suggests the question while connoting the sort of power differential identified by post-modernists. Following this Auden makes a call, if not for love, with its concurrent strings and expectations, than certainly for compassion on the part of the speaker. ‘Let me take an active role and love.” Love is a verb after all. The last stanza denoting a sense of great age and perspective, humility and loss. Auden has lost, survived, and, like us all, come out the lesser but wiser for it.

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