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.
© W.H. Auden. All Rights Reserved.
This particular poem is hands-down my absolute favourite Auden poem. It’s both lamentable and heart-warming and deals with a subject matter that Auden had plenty of experience and of which more or less all of us can relate – the pain of unrequited love. I’ve always favoured the idea that Auden creates a gorgeously tragic metaphor out of the stars in the sky to be all the lovers who never returned his affections. The More Loving One in some respects could fundamentally be considered to be Auden’s extensive self-examination of his failures in romantic endeavors, and the delicately implemented natural imagery enhances the idea that these failures are ultimately an inevitable facet of human nature.
I love how Auden begins his poem with typical romanticism and the (now almost cliché) act of ‘looking up at the stars’ and then immediately follows with the abrupt claim that ‘for all they care, I can go to hell.’ I guess I’m just a sucker for ironic cynicism but I utterly adore this kind of commentary. It’s as if Auden is immediately clarifying his realist perspective to us readers, but also addresses that this kind of indifference is not the most evil our world has to offer as there are far worse things ‘we have to dread.’ He points out to us that if it were that the ‘stars [would] burn / with a passion for us’ our planet would catch a blaze it would end in destruction and toil. If we continue with the interpretation that the poem is discussing the pains of unrequited love, we can infer that Auden has deduced that ‘equal affection’ is not always possible and not always a positive thing. Affection and attraction (although both holding positive connotations) can result in detrimentally damaging relationships filled with obsession and jealousy. He thus concludes that if this ‘equal affection cannot be , / then let the more loving one be me’, diluting his pain with the antidote that if all does not go the way in which he willed, he can still pride himself on his ability to love and protect the one who evokes his affections from the pain he suffers; as a virtue that one would find near impossible to fault.
The final stanza is particularly poignant, with Auden’s final contemplation of the worth of his painful endurance in his unrequited love affairs. He claims that ‘were all the stars to disappear or die, / I should learn to look at an empty sky’, thus implying that eventually the pain of unrequited affection will heal or simply numb itself and could result in not feeling the thrills of love at all. He calls this scenario ‘dark’ and suggests that adapting to this ‘might take me a little time.’ We are ultimately left wondering whether or not the pains of love aren’t actually a covertly positive facet of human nature, for if it did not exist Auden seems less sure that we could fully appreciate life without those we truly love – regardless of if they return our affections or not.