‘Their Lonely Betters’ by W.H. Auden

As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade
To all the noises that my garden made,
It seemed to me only proper that words
Should be withheld from vegetables and birds.

A robin with no Christian name ran through
The Robin-Anthem which was all it knew,
And rustling flowers for some third party waited
To say which pairs, if any, should get mated.

Not one of them was capable of lying,
There was not one which knew that it was dying
Or could have with a rhythm or a rhyme
Assumed responsibility for time.

Let them leave language to their lonely betters
Who count some days and long for certain letters;
We, too, make noises when we laugh or weep:
Words are for those with promises to keep.

Their Lonely Betters embodies everything I love about Auden’s work; it employs a traditional, rhyming form, but loses none of its poetic ease or beauty. For me, this shows the real mastery of Auden as a poet; nothing is ever forced, with his writing. He sweeps calmly and majestically through these four verses, ending on a neat and poignant final line that leaves you desperate to read the whole thing again.

The poem explores the differences between ‘natural’ beings in the garden – the “vegetables and birds” – and humans with all their artifice. I love the unassuming, understated opening. Auden expresses his feeling that words should be “withheld” from the creatures in his garden. It is as though he does not want to contaminate the innocence of nature with the ‘man-forged manacles‘ of language. He mentions the robin “with no Christian name”, singing its “Robin-Anthem which was all it knew”. This line reminded me of Mary Oliver’s The KingfisherIn that poem, Oliver talks about the bird’s “rough and easy cry/ I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body if my life depended on it”. It is the sound of pure instinct – the essence of life un-muddled by thought.

The mention of the birds mating, and how simple it is without the sometimes deceitful mask of language, adds a tint of bitterness to this poem. Auden’s love-life was rather rocky, and I get a sense of real pain in his expression of how language and its inclination for telling lies confuses natural instincts in this poem. We are forever questioning and imagining and longing for other places, other people; we are never content. Of course, this can be both a blessing and a curse.

In the third verse, Auden reminds us that not one of the birds in his garden is “capable of lying” or knows that it is “dying”. They have no awareness of their mortality, and they do not tell lies. Is there a link between these two facts? Do we lie – do we write fiction – because we know that we are dying? I am certain our impulse for storytelling comes partly from our awareness of death; we want to pass on memories, make sense of our lives and distract ourselves from reality. As Auden says, none of those birds could “with a rhythm or a rhyme” assume “responsibility for time”. I just love those two lines. I love the idea of poetry being an act of assuming responsibility for time. For that is, in a sense, what we do when we write poetry — we are playing God.

As we enter the final stanza, Auden says “Let them leave language to their lonely betters”. This sums up the whole poem, for me. The birds will keep their happy innocence, and their “lonely betters” – that’s us – will remain lonely, with our language – our craft of lying. Language – source of so much beauty and delight – makes us superior in so many ways to non-speaking animals. But it also complicates our lives intensely. It is through language that we betray and lie to each other; it is through language that misunderstandings arise and promises are broken. Perhaps this is because language is ultimately inadequate for expressing what we really mean.

The last two lines are unforgettable. The noises that we make when we “laugh or weep” are natural expressions of untempered emotion – they are the sounds we make when words fail us. When grief is too great, we weep, having no words to describe our pain. When we are in hysterics, we laugh, and for a moment we are relieved of thought. “Words are for those with promises to keep”. Auden ends the piece with a lovely rhyme, remarking that we need language because we communicate; we make promises; we bargain and negotiate with each other. Animals do not do this. This ending for me has a positive tint to it; it makes me feel like although language allows us to lie, and although we often break our promises and betray each other, I would rather the promises were made and the lies told, than for nothing to be said (or written) at all.

Auden

Auden

‘Childhood’ by Frances Cornford

I used to think that grown-up people chose
To have stiff backs and wrinkles round their nose,
And veins like small fat snakes on either hand,
On purpose to be grand.
Till through the banister I watched one day
My great-aunt Etty’s friend who was going away,
And how her onyx beads had come unstrung.
I saw her grope to find them as they rolled;
And then I knew that she was helplessly old,
As I was helplessly young.

This is a piece that really intrigues me because it manages to have both a childlike tone, and also one that is so spot-on in expressing the ‘helpless’ tragedy of old age. It evokes so beautifully the way that age defines us — both as a child, and as an elderly person.

Phrases like “grown-up people” and the notion of people getting “stiff backs” and  veiny hands “on purpose to be grand” ensure that the poet’s voice retains a childish element. We can all remember thinking things like this of ‘grown-ups’ when we were children; age limits the child’s understanding and empathy due to lack of experience.

The speaker describes her “great-aunt Etty’s friend” who’s beads have “come unstrung” and who gropes around to find them “as they rolled”. What a poignant image. The word ‘unstrung’ is carefully chosen – it delivers the notion of a life unravelling… It is an important moment in a child’s life, when they first realise the limitations and failings of adults – and when they first become conscious of their own mortality.

I’m sure everyone can relate to the feeling you get when you witness helpless old age, or helpless frailty. It does something to you because you are watching somebody suffer, but also because you are being faced with a weakness that you know is within you also, and that is hard to admit.

I think the word “helpless” is perfect in this situation. The old lady, great-aunt Etty is “helplessly old” and the speaker is “helplessly young”. Etty is limited by her frail body in her movements, and the speaker is limited in her empathy and understanding by her youth.

Frances Cornford

Frances Cornford

‘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 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: