By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The More Loving One’ is one of W. H. Auden’s most popular post-1930s poems. At once a celebration of unrequited love and a metaphysical poem about the difficulty of finding ‘love’ and meaning in a secular age, it is a straightforward poem that, like much of Auden’s poetry, conceals more complex meanings beneath the surface.
You can read ‘The More Loving One’ here before proceeding to our analysis of the poem below.
‘The More Loving One’ comprises four quatrains, rhymed aabb. The metre or ‘ground-plan’ for the poem is iambic tetrameter (i.e. four iambs, or feet comprising an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed; as seen in the line ‘I cannot, now I see them, say’, where the italicised words are the stressed syllables).
However, in keeping with many modern poems, Auden doesn’t stick strictly to this metre, although it’s the loose pattern he uses for his meditation on unequal love.
That’s the technical side of the poem: chatty, straightforward (rhyming couplets rather than a more elaborate or sophisticated form). But what does it mean? Let’s take each of Auden’s four stanzas in turn.
In the first stanza, the poet begins by remarking upon the indifference of the stars: when he looks up at them, he knows they don’t care about what happens to him.
But, before we begin to suspect we are in for some self-pitying verse, Auden stoically reflects that of all the things man is primed to be wary of in ‘man or beast’, indifference is the least one to be feared. ‘Man or beast’ takes us back to primitive man, suggesting the caveman fighting other cavemen over food, and trying to fend off predators in the form of big, threatening animals or ‘beasts’.
In the second stanza, Auden thinks about the stars’ indifference towards him. Well, what if things were different, he wonders, and the stars were ‘burning’ not purely out of an act of nuclear fission, but because they harboured a passion for us, a love that we could not reciprocate?
Surely things are better off with the stars not giving a damn about us. Indeed, Auden declares, at the end of this second stanza, that when it comes to the stars, he is glad to be ‘the more loving one’ out of the two.
In the third stanza, before we get carried away and start to believe Auden has a thing for the stars, he tells us that, although he likes to think of himself as their ‘admirer’, he doesn’t miss them during the day when they’re not visible in the sky. Steady on, the poet says: technically I am ‘the more loving one’ because I admire the beauty of the stars in the night sky, but it’s not as if I’m going to write them a love lyric or anything…
In the poem’s final stanza, Auden goes so far as to say that if all the stars in the sky disappeared and died, he would get used to looking up at an empty night sky and would embrace the total darkness, without stars to brighten it up. It might take him a bit of time, but he’d adapt.
Note how there is a constant pulling-back or reining-in with this poem: the first half of the first stanza sets us up for a poem lamenting the indifference of nature towards us, only to conclude that indifference is actually fine; the first half of the poem leads us to believe that Auden loves the stars and that we are in for a celebratory poem admiring their beauty, before the second half checks this impulse and the poet bluffly reassures us that he could cope without them.
What is this poem about? When summarised like this, it seems almost too simple, perhaps even childlike: I’m an admirer of the stars, which don’t care whether I live or die, but actually I’m not even that into them. That’s the sentiment. But there’s a little more to it than this.
‘The More Loving One’ should be analysed in light of the decline of faith in the western world, and the growing secularism of the twentieth century.
The ‘stars’ in Auden’s poem should be read with astrology as well as astronomy in mind: the stars may be mere balls of gas light years away in the universe, but for centuries man made them the centre of a whole belief system, believing that human fate could be read or divined within the patterns of the stars.
As the famous quotation from Julius Caesar has it: ‘The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars / But in ourselves.’ (John Green borrowed that line for his novel The Fault in Our Stars, of course.)
In other words, it’s significant that of all natural phenomena, Auden is looking up at the heavens – and deciding that there is no ‘heaven’ as man has conceived of it. The stars are just balls of gas, and there is no godly guiding hand. What should we make of this knowledge?
Auden’s answer, as it consistently is throughout his work, is love: we should admire the stars all the same, even though they don’t care about us. (It’s worth comparing Auden’s poem with A. E. Housman’s poem about nature not caring about him; like Auden, Housman finds comfort in this conclusion.)
But at the same time, we should resist the romantic impulse (or Romantic impulse, even, recalling poets like Wordsworth, who grandly described the stars as ‘mansions built by Nature’s hand’).
‘The More Loving One’ is not a gushing paean to the beauty of the stars, but instead a level-headed response to the crisis of disenchantment in a post-religious age. Once, man collectively believed the stars, or the heavens, cared about what happened to him. We’ve lost that.
As an individual, we can respond by believing that the universe has a purpose for us; or we can respond by saying it doesn’t, and ask what’s the point of anything. Or we can meet the universe’s indifference to us head-on and take pride in the fact that we, products of nature, have been instilled with the ability to care, to feel awe in the face of nature’s sublime aspects, and to love.