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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Number 50: W.H. Auden "The More Loving One"

The More Loving One

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

Hap Notes: I've always thought that Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) was America's trade with Great Britain for T.S. Eliot, Auden having been born in England and taking American citizenship in 1946 and Eliot, born in St. Louis, MO, taking British citizenship in the 1930s. The difference being (sort of sad really) that we didn't protest much when Eliot left but Britain was horrified at Auden's leaving. In terms of poetic prowess, I might add, we got the better deal since we got Eliot's influence on Auden as well as the poet himself.

Auden was a brilliant, erudite and clever man skilled in all the forms of poetry and was so good at writing it that he can often reel them off a bit glibly. Whenever one reads criticisms of Auden the issues are never a question of his skill as a poet, it's about whether he genuinely meant it or not. Was he feeling it or was he just showing you his sharp expertise? He's got a good poem for every style in the field, really. He is stylistically and technically a virtuoso at playing the piano of poetry. He also wrote critical essays and I think his book The Dyer's Hand, a collection of his lectures, is essential reading for students of literature.

You may know Auden for his poem "Funeral Blues" from its inclusion in the movie "Four Weddings and A Funeral" and one of his finest poems "September 1, 1939" has been excerpted and truncated for many a poetry reading (especially post 9/11) and is famous for the line "We must love one another or die." One hates to see this used too freely but one loves to see it used. Auden later rejected the poem from inclusion in collections of his work but I believe it was mostly because the line was becoming an old shoe like Maya Angelou's "more alike than unalike" thing that gets rolled out all too frequently.

Regardless of opinions about his work, Auden's shadow looms large. He influenced countless poets and it is often remarked that the "Beats" were a reaction against the kind of poetry he wrote and inspired. His greatness as a poet is often disputed but, good grief, it's not hard to see that modern poetry would not exist the way it does and continues to do without Auden. His footprint is so massive that we don't always see that we are standing in it.

"The More Loving One" is a case in point about his work. First off, it's brilliantly casual. Then, one begins to see it as a parallel to other affections besides the one the poet feels for stars. The third stanza is a bit of bravado and the fourth, an admission of some vulnerability. This is pretty tight stuff, here. And of course, only the more loving one would write a poem, wouldn't they? The stars write no poems to us. And yet, Auden is a sly fox because if this is written to a person rather than a star, it certainly shows the poet to be capable of enjoying life without the loved one even if it would take some time. Hmmm. Stuff to wrestle with.

I often think of this poem in contrast with Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Love is Not All:

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain;
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink
And rise and sink and rise and sink again;
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath,
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone;
Yet many a man is making friends with death
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone.
It well may be that in a difficult hour,
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release,
Or nagged by want past resolution's power,
I might be driven to sell your love for peace,
Or trade the memory of this night for food.
It well may be. I do not think I would.
-- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Now, who do you think is the "more loving one" and why? What are the chances the poet will ever have an opportunity to "trade" her memories for peace or even food?

Auden's poem may be colder but is he more of a realist?

Here's a good Auden quote: "The interests of a writer and the interests of his readers are never the same and if, on occasion, they happen to coincide, this is a lucky accident."

You can find more Auden here:

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