The More Loving One
By W. H. Auden – 1907-1973
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.
About the Poem
“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 interpretations beneath the surface.
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. However, the poem is not a 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.
Auden thinks about the stars’ indifference towards him in the second stanza. He wonders if things were different, and the stars were “burning” not purely out of an act of nuclear fission but because they harbored a passion for us, a love we could not reciprocate. At the end of this second stanza, Auden declares that when it comes to the stars, he is glad to be “the more loving one” out of the two.
In the third stanza, Auden tells us that, although he likes to think of himself as the stars’ “admirer,” he doesn’t miss them during the day when they’re not visible in the sky. Auden is saying that technically he is “the more loving one” because he admires the beauty of the stars in the night sky, but that’s as far as it goes.
In the final stanza, Auden says that if all the stars in the sky disappeared and died, he would get used to looking up at an empty night sky and eventually embrace the total darkness without stars to brighten it up. While it might take him some time, he’d adapt.
Auden constantly reins in 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 heartily reassures us that he could cope without them. When summarized in this way, it seems that the poem is almost too simple: he’s an admirer of the stars, which don’t care whether he lives or dies, but actually, he doesn’t even care that much about the stars. However, there’s more to the poem than you might think at first reading.
“The More Loving One” should be analyzed 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 center 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 says, “The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars / But in ourselves.”
In other words, it’s significant that of all natural phenomena, Auden looks up at the heavens and decides that there is no “heaven” as man conceived of it. The stars are just balls of gas, and there is no godly guiding hand. What should we make of this knowledge? As it consistently is throughout his work, Auden’s answer is love: we should admire the stars all the same, even though they don’t care about us. But at the same time, we should resist the romantic. “The More Loving One” is not a song of praise for 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. Auden is saying that the world has lost its belief in the stars.
As individuals, 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 the point of anything is. Or we can meet the universe’s indifference to us head-on and take pride in the fact that we, as products of nature, have been instilled with the ability to care, to feel awe in the face of nature’s beauty, and to love.
About W. H. Auden
Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-73) was born in York, England, and was educated at the University of Oxford. He described how the poetic outlook when he was born was “Tennysonian,” but by the time he went to Oxford as a student in 1925, T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had altered the English poetic landscape away from Tennyson and towards what we now call “modernism.”
W. H. Auden was admired for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; his incorporation of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech in his work; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literary art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information.
Surprisingly given his later, better-known work, Auden’s early poetry flirted with the obscurity of modernism: in 1932, his long work The Orators (a mixture of verse and prose poetry with an incomprehensible plot) was published by Faber and Faber, then under the watchful eye of none other than T. S. Eliot. Auden later distanced himself from this experimental false start, describing The Orators as the kind of work produced by someone who would later either become a fascist or go mad.
Auden thankfully did neither, embracing instead a more traditional set of poetic forms (he wrote a whole sequence of sonnets about the Sino-Japanese War of the late 1930s) and a more direct way of writing that rejected modernism’s love of obscure allusion. This does not mean that Auden’s work is always straightforward in its meaning, and arguably his most famous poem, “Funeral Blues,” is often “misread” as a sincere elegy when it was intended to be a send-up or parody of public obituaries.
In early 1939, not long before the outbreak of the Second World War, Auden left Britain for the United States, much to the annoyance of his fellow left-wing writers. They saw such a move as a desertion of Auden’s political duty as the most prominent English poet of the decade. In America, where he lived for much of the rest of his life with his long-time partner Chester Kallman, Auden collaborated with composers on a range of musicals and continued to write poetry, but 90 percent of his best work belongs to the 1930s, the decade with which is most associated. He died in 1973 in Austria, where he had a holiday home.