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Poetic verse has been used as an outlet of strong emotions and feelings for centuries. The elegance of poetry has long been thought of as more refined than that of prose writing, and thus as a better vessel for conveying strong feelings. Subjects such as death, love, hate, beauty, and betrayal are common themes, but poems can also be about almost nothing at all. One of the most classic themes in poetry is the broad topic of love. A sappy sonnet to a loved one on Valentine’s day, a free verse comparing a broken heart to a cracked chicken egg, a haiku about the beauty of one’s love in the moonlight, the list goes on and on. In both W. H. Auden’s “The More Loving One” and Christina Rossetti’s “No, Thank You, John” the subject of the poem deals with unrequited love, but each from the opposite side of the spectrum. Unrequited love, and the usual resulting broken heart, is one of the more poignant issues a person can deal with. This lack of emotional reciprocation can be very difficult to deal with, but both poems have satisfying resolutions to their problems.
Although the two poems have a similar premise, they differ in perspective. While Rossetti’s poetic subject is the object of one man’s, John’s, desires, Auden’s poetic subject is a lover “of stars who do not give a dam” (l 10). The lack of returned feelings is something that the subject grapples with through out Auden’s work. He understands that the stars do not love him and that they never will, regardless of his feelings for them. This can be seen as a direct analogy for loving a person and not receiving love back. However, Auden clearly knows that when in a relationship with another person or animal, as opposed to the stars, “indifference is the least” (l 3) thing he has to fear.
As Auden contemplates a star-to-man role reversal in the second stanza, readers can make inferences about the man’s emotional history:
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. (ll 5-8)
It is the man’s familiarity with the pain of unrequited love that drives him to be the more loving one. He understands the anguish so well, that he would rather face it himself than wish it on another. The power of his love, although unreturned, is strong enough for him to submit himself to heartache and to spare the object of his desire.
In the first two stanzas, Auden establishes the man’s feeling and the lengths at which he would go for the object of his desire. Although the poem is about loving the stars, the results of the unrequited love can be translated to a relationship to “man or beast” (l 4). In the second two stanzas, Auden offers solace to the man:
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel it’s total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time. (ll 13-16)
The man knows that no matter how passionately he burns for his beloved stars, he cannot change the way they feel about him. He comforts himself with the fact that time (“take me a little time”) will heal all wounds. Although he is suffering from his unreturned love, eventually the pain and even the desire will fade completely.
One other beautiful aspect of Auden’s work is the imagery of the stars. By having stars be the object of the man’s love, Auden’s characterizes the distance and estrangement that one feels from unrequited love. He could love the stars to death, and it would not change anything. Thus, he must wait for the healer of all things, time.
While Auden’s poem deals with not receiving any love, Rossetti’s poem deals with not giving any love. She is the object of a man’s advances and uses the poem to adamantly turn him down, though she uses a great deal of tact and honesty to do so. She opens with “I never said I loved you, John” (l 1). With this opening statement she sets a tone of honesty for the rest of the poem. Also, throughout the poem she maintains that she was never untrue to him or gave him false hope: “Don’t call me false, who owed not to be true” (l 14). This is an important distinction that she makes. If she had instead given John false hope for love, and then denied him, some of the blame for the situation would rest on her shoulders. But she did not. She implores him to use his sense and realize that it is not her fault that she was made his “toast” (l 6), and that he cannot blame her for the way she feels or the way she does not feel. Her somewhat brutal honesty comes to a point when she last exclaims, “I’d rather answer “No” to fifty Johns / Than answer “Yes” to you.” (ll 19-20).
Rossetti was a Victorian poet and this was a very progressive way of thinking for women at the time. It went against the status quo to not be a subservient and obedient woman. It is thought that Rossetti wrote that poem for the 19th century artist John Brett.
As Rossetti moves from simple refusal to absolute rejection, she counters the arguments John has to make her rethink her decision: “I have no heart?-Perhaps I have not; / But then you’re mad to take offence / That I don’t give you what I have not got.” (ll 13-15). She shuts down his excuses and advances as John vainly tries to salvage some sort of romantic relationship. Her words are crisp and have an adamant, no-nonsense impression. By supplying a question to herself (“I have no heart?”), the readers can assume that John has not taken the high road as the speaker in Auden’s poem has. John seems to be pettier and is clutching at his last shred of hope for Rossetti’s love. He will eventually get over his rejection, “Though this might take [him] a little time.” (l 16).
After Rossetti’s poem reaches peak rejection, she helps to heal the wound, similarly to Auden’s poem, by offering solace to John in the last 3 stanzas. She asks him to “mar our pleasant days no more” (l 21) and to “strike hands as hearty friends; / No more, no less” (l 25-26). Although her annoyance with John is apparent throughout the poem, the sincerity she shows towards the end offers consolation for him. By honestly and adamantly telling him that no love could form between him, she prevents him from having false hope, and she shows her true character by offering the friendship between them: “Here’s friendship if you like; but love,- / No, thank you, John.” (ll 30-31). She deflects John’s almost pathetic desperation and still manages to tactfully reject him. It is not easy to come out as the ‘good guy’ when you break someone’s heart, but Rossetti seems to have done it flawlessly.
Auden and Rossetti were authors of very different time periods. Auden was born a decade after Rossetti died. They most likely had very little in common, and yet their poems compliment each other quite well: Rossetti tactfully doling out a harsh rejection, Auden maturely and rationally dealing with that rejection. The unrequited love that both poems deal with reminds readers, who have experienced it, what it is like to love and to lose. Rossetti’s offers insight and advice to someone who must reject emotional advances, while Auden’s offers great solace and consolation for those who have been rejected. The poems encapsulate great feelings and emotions while maintaining impeccable poetic flow. Rossetti’s sharp and witty (and almost humorous) rejection is balanced nicely by Auden’s soft but poignant rationale. The authors use the poems wonderfully as an elegant vessel to encapsulate great and powerful emotions.
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