I learned of this poem by Auden recently. I know very little about Auden, truthfully, but something about this poem caught my fancy. Perhaps it is the open questions, the opportunity for interpretation, the comical nature of the words. Something. Perhaps it is because love is a little like all he describes. Love is a silly thing, a moment in the mundane, and a constant joy. Love is difficult but bends as we do. Love is none of these things but more. But perhaps it is his willingness to struggle with the philosophy behind this wonderful thing yet does not directly answer his questions that I love so much about this poem.
“O Tell Me the Truth About Love.” How to say it? What is the truth? What is love? That last one is the central question of this poem, I suppose. And it is the central question of us all regarding romantic love. So what is it? Auden doesn’t answer that for us. Instead, he goes on a journey. He tells of the funny cliches people say about love, the phrases that first come to mind that point to the bigger picture but don’t mean much of anything. Yes, love makes the world go round. But how? By naming more people? By keeping the peace? By fellowship? I don’t know. I’d say the love of God keeps the world turning, but I doubt that is what Auden is getting at. And after all, love cannot be surmised in little cliches.
So what else might it be? Could love be one night flings with strangers? Is it foul or lovely? Does it only have to do with the body and how we feel in the moment, or is it something more? Oh, he asks, tell me the truth. We have all read about this thing called love. It has been mentioned since Creation, and history alludes to it. It happens in our day-to-day life, so common that perhaps it is not worth noting at all. And yet, when the serious arises, that silly little thing comes up again. However, others treat it like a throwaway thing, so perhaps love is nothing more than a thing to say or do or encounter before passing it on.
But what else could be love? Is love loud, boisterous, musical? Is it a performance, or a game? Is love fickle, or enduring? And will it be something we can hold onto? Auden comments that he has looked for it in places others have claimed to have found it. Romantic spots, and in nature’s song. But when he went there, there it was not. So what is love? Is it something found, or does it find us? Auden wonders again if love is a waste of time or a nervous thing. Perhaps it comes with particular views. But is love a person, an idea, a feeling? Perhaps love is… but where does one find such truth?
He gets close to discovering what romantic love is at the end. He can see hints of it. Love is not found. It doesn’t stay in particular places; it comes with any mood. Love is made in the moments of life, constant with the change, a touch meant just for you. Will it alter your life altogether? I hope so. But only then will you know the truth about love.
Blessings to you and yours,
~Madelyn Rose Craig