The More Loving One

The More Loving One 
By 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.

I've been a big fan of Auden ever since I read his lovely quote "Love each other or perish" in Tuesdays with Morrie. This poem of his is a particular favorite of mine. In The More Loving One, Auden writes quite beautifully about a topic that he (and many of us) struggled with in life- unrequited love, and develops a beautiful metaphor of the stars as people and as lovers. I like the use of stars in this metaphor here, especially since a one-sided lover can at times seem as distant and as beautiful as the stars.

I particularly like how he begins the poem. It starts in a pretty cliche manner, with the image of someone "looking up at the stars," and then takes quite a unique turn, claiming (in an uncharacteristically brusque manner) that for all the stars care, he could "go to hell." This is both a painful yet unfortunately common sentiment- the feeling of both loving someone and knowing they couldn't care less. But despite the pain of indifference, Auden goes on to claim that there are worst things man and beast can do to you.

In the second stanza, Auden inverts the typical story, and wonders how it feels to be on the other side of an unrequited love- how it feels to know that someone loves you and yet be unable to return the feeling. I imagine it would be a similarly difficult experience, especially if the two are close. After all, if we love the stars, if we are friends with our lovers, wouldn't we also not want them to burn? Auden follows this question with the title of the poem and my personal favorite two lines:
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

I love this line. While Auden makes it unclear which side of an unrequited love is more painful, his choice is made clear here- he chooses the side that loves mores, that cares more. This line can, I think, be read in two ways. In a more pessimistic reading, perhaps Auden finds it the less painful option, that loving and being ignored is worse than being loved and ignoring. A braver (and my preferred) reading is that Auden cannot bear for the one he loves to suffer the way he does. 

The next stanza takes another turn. Despite his admiration for stars (read: lovers) that do not love him back, once he sees them, he cannot say that he misses one particular star over another. I read this stanza as a half hearted attempt to convince himself of a fairly common post-breakup cliche- "there are plenty of fish in the sea." 

In the final stanza, Auden contemplates a world where all the stars have disappeared or died, and he is left with an empty night sky, a life without love. He thinks that he would get used to and "learn to look at an empty night sky," even if it might take him some time. Auden seems to be much less certain in this stanza, unsure if he could live without the one he loves so much, yet does not return his love, noting that it would take him much time and much effort. Again, I think this stanza can be read a couple of ways. The first reading is fairly straightforward, that Auden really thinks he can live without love, given enough time. The second (again my preferred) is evocative of someone in the throes of unrequited love trying to convince himself that he can live without love, that even an empty night sky is "sublime." But, just as in the previous stanza, he doesn't seem particularly successful. After all, isn't a night sky adorned with stars much more beautiful than an empty, dark, and lonely night?

Finally, here's a recording of Auden reading the poem himself: