LAMENT – RAINER MARIA


Everything is far
and long gone by.
I think that the star
glittering above me
has been dead for a million years.
I think there were tears
in the car I heard pass
and something terrible was said.
A clock has stopped striking in the house
across the road…
When did it start?…
I would like to step out of my heart
an go walking beneath the enormous sky.
I would like to pray.
And surely of all the stars that perished
long ago,
one still exists.
I think that I know
which one it is–
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city…

THE MORE LOVING ONE – 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.

Explanation :

But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

Auden proclaims this to us in the first stanza, and I wonder: Is it true? (I certainly don’t think so. Indifference is very cold.)

Later on, we hear this from the speaker:

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

“More love,” of course, can very easily translate into hate. Any of us who love know this. We know how disappointed we can be because of love, and we know that hate takes a variety of forms. One of the more prominent forms it takes is a type of indifference, an attempt to be dead to the world so one cannot be hurt again. If indifference truly is the least we have to fear, then the wish to be more loving is inconsistent with that “fact.” So Auden has some explaining to do:

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.

The attitude of the speaker here – an attitude we are tempted not to reflect on because he has chosen to personify “stars,” and we would rather make sense of that – is that of “indifference.”

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.

And this indifference, of course, pushes our speaker to embrace the infinite void, total darkness, a darkness so “sublime” it cannot be truly embraced until death (“a little time”). Indifference, obviously, is the problem for Auden’s speaker. We can’t be indifferent. Hence we should be “more loving,” divorced from a temptation to indifference.

A very cleverly constructed poem, where the 3 stanzas seem to complement the first, but in fact refute it.

I’ve been a little obsessed with Auden lately (even if I haven’t been writing blog posts about poetry, I’ve still been reading!)

This piece is one of my favourites. It’s so unusual, touching, and deals with something that Auden experienced very painfully in his own life – unrequited love. In The More Loving One, Auden develops a beautiful metaphor of the stars as people, or lovers. I also feel that this poem might be about religious faith, which Auden struggled with throughout his life – abandoning it through many of his younger years, and returning to it in old age.

I particularly love the opening to this poem. I love the way that the first line could easily lead on to a cliched second line, but that it doesn’t. Instead, Auden, contemplating the stars, affirms that – for all they care – “I can go to hell”. I love that blunt phrasing. He goes on to remark that indifference is not the worst thing in the world; there exist reactions we ought to fear far more.

The second verse poses the question, “how would we like it” if the stars burned with a love for us that we couldn’t reciprocate? What would it be like to be loved so intensely by someone we could not love? Which side is more painful in unrequited love? Auden tells us his choice through what I think are the ‘star lines’ of the poem: If equal affection cannot be/ Let the more loving one be me. I wonder whether Auden choses to be “the more loving one” because it is the less painful option, or because he cannot bear for the one he loves to suffer as he does.

Of course, if you read this as a poem about religious faith, this second verse suggests that Auden would rather keep his faith and love for God, even if it is completely in vain. Even if heaven doesn’t care, or doesn’t exist, he would still prefer to be the ardent lover – the one that feels, rather than the one that is cold.

As much as he admires “stars that do not give a damn”, the poet tells us in the penultimate stanza, he can’t say that he missed one all day. During the daytime there is the sun, and all of nature to admire and love. In romantic terms, I think Auden is trying to convince himself (not very successfully) that there are ‘plenty more fish in the sea’. In religious terms, I think he’s just saying that it’s easy for him to forget God during the times when he is happy or involved.

The final verse contemplates a scenario where all the stars have disappeared or died. Faced with this eventuality, Auden informs us that he would “learn to look at an empty sky/ And feel its total dark sublime”. However, that “might take me a little time.” Auden seems unsure whether he could learn to appreciate a life without the one he loves so much, yet who does not return his love. It would take time, and much effort. The same goes for a world without God.

As always with Auden, this poem is a masterful exploration of ideas that can and will be read in many different ways. He gifts us an emotional honesty that I find incredibly touching.

Here’s a recording of Auden reading the poem himself:

POEM #2

A star falls from the sky and into your hands. Then it seeps through your veins and swims inside your blood and becomes every part of you. And then you have to put it back into the sky. And it’s the most painful thing you’ll ever have to do and that you’ve ever done. But what’s yours is yours. Whether it’s up in the sky or here in your hands. And one day, it’ll fall from the sky and hit you in the head real hard and that time, you won’t have to put it back in the sky again. I stood alone beneath the stars and shouted to the heavens at the top of my lungs and what was so beautiful was the way the stars shined when the sky swallowed your name.

POEM #3

Everything is far and long gone by.
I think that the star glittering above me
has been dead for a million years.
I think there were tears in the car I heard pass
and something terrible was said.

A clock has stopped striking in the house
across the road… When did it start?…
I would like to step out of my heart
and go walking beneath the enormous sky.

I would like to pray.

And surely of all the stars that perished
long ago, one still exists.
I think that I know which one it is
which one, at the end of its beam in the sky,
stands like a white city.

POEM #4

The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is Someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

POEM #5

Bright star – would I were steadfast as thou art –
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores…

 

 

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