At once sarcastic and tender, W.H. Auden’s “The More Loving One” asks us to imagine a night sky empty of stars:
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.— “The More Loving One,” W.H. Auden, 1957
I might very well like a starless sky and call it sublime or subtle in its black-on-black nuance, the poet declares, and not mourn the sight of a supernova, which is after all the explosive death of a star, and I may not notice the absence of one should it simply blink out, but in all matters, “If equal affection cannot be,/Let the more loving one be me.”
In all matters attracting my human attention, be it the night sky or my beloved’s face, let the more loving one be me.
* * * *
I did not know how much I love color as a perceptual reality until my spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) became symptomatic and walking became something that I had to concentrate on while doing.
At night, particularly at night, I started to experience something called “freezing of gait,” which I would also sometimes experience upon coming to a doorway. I understand it now, but for a couple of years, I experienced terror, simply because I did not understand what was happening.
For most of us, walking is partly an improvisation in which the brain perceives differences in the environment—the room on the other side of the doorway, a nearby divot in the field, a slope—and reacts quickly, without thought. The walker changes course, or almost stumbles and pops back up, or stumbles and gets back up. The feet adjust. The legs know where to go.
A walker with a neuromuscular condition such as an ataxia or a spinal cord injury or SMA has to “think” his or her walking; it is a process of planning a step and executing it and then repeating it, starting with the thought. Each stride has at least two parts to it, and one of them is conscious thought. “Leg: Move.” All of the information the world presents to an average walker with good eyesight is processed silently and rapidly, and the walker walks. When I was first affected by SMA, all of the same information threw me into a freezing of gait response: every doorway to the outdoors presented me with too much information; the world of the outdoors at night was the worst with its absence of information. The night gives me too much not enough information.
The night. Every so often I still have the freezing moments: at night, with its gift of the absence of color, that huge absence of information. Streetlights cast shadows that appear as chasms, and then my oh-so-ginger step across reveals a quarter-inch drop. An actual dangerous break in a sidewalk, but a well-illuminated one, may look flat and safe and result in a fall.
It is the nighttime’s lack of color, color which the brain uses to notice spots at which I need to make changes about my next step, that freeze me. I thought I was alone in this, but I am not; “freezing of gait” is not my expression and it is a common phrase—but when I first read it, I almost cried because I recognized the description and I finally knew I am not alone.
The idea in Auden’s poem probably meant little to me when I first read it years ago. A starless sky? Okay, I can imagine that. But other than the word “Love” in the title, how is this a love poem? “Let me be the more loved,” could have been my personal motto. Give me more presents than I give you and we’ll call today good. Love something that can not love me back? I never owned a pet rock. “Let the more loving one be me”? Pshaw.
Blue does not know it is “blue,” and green does not know how many examples and variations it offers. Colors, trees, cracks in the sidewalk need perceivers, and that simple fact of perception is Auden’s “love”; for me, I love the varieties of shades and nuances of color, especially at night, and so do my so-far unbroken legs and arms. I love my girlfriend’s moonlit face, too.
* * * *
This column was written in 2014 then re-visited in December 2015.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for July 7 asks us to reflect on the word, “Darkness.”
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