The More Loving One: The Science of Entropy and the Art of Alternative Endings

“If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”

This seventh installment is part of the animated interlude series of The Universe in Verse in collaboration With On Being. It celebrates the wonders of reality by sharing stories of science infused with poetry. The live season has resumed. Check out the other installments.


In 1865 — a year before the German marine biologist Ernst Haeckel coined the word ecology, the year Emily Dickinson composed her stunning pre-ecological poem about how life-forms come into being — the German physicist Rudolf Clausius coined the word EntropyThe undoing or disappearance of something. Temperature-driven collapse of physical systems, leading to increasing disorder and uncertainty. A dissolution of all cohesion according to the time arrow. Inescapable. Irreversible. Perpetually inclining us toward, in poet Mary Ruefle’s perfect phrase, “the end of time, which is also the end of poetry (and wheat and evil and insects and love).” Perpetually ensuring, in poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s perfect phrase, that “lovers and thinkers” become “one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.”

The transformation of order and disorder into constancy and discontinuity is what allows us to detect change, as well as tell the difference between one second and another. Without entropy, the universe would be a vast eternal stillness — a frozen fixity in which never and forever are one. Without entropy, there would be no time — at least not for us, creatures of time.

Clausius based his work on the Greek term for transformation. tropēBecause he believed ancient languages were the best way to identify new scientific concepts and made them accessible to everyone, all times, in all tongues. He was also pleased by the fact that EntropyAs it looked Energy — its twin in the making and unmaking of the universe. The giver of life, energy. The taker. Every cell, which animates us with life. Every star’s extinguisher that releases its thermal energy into spacetime, heating up orbiting planets with dying breaths. Our Sun’s burning out is what keeps us alive. We wouldn’t exist without entropy.

W.H. Auden

A physicist’s child. W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973) had no illusion about the entropic nature of reality — a science-lensed lucidity he wove into his poetic search for truth, for meaning, for a way to live with our human fragility, with our twin capacities for terror and tenderness inside an impartial universe he knew to be impervious to our plans and pleas. As the child of two world conflicts, he was not deceived about how human nature is subject to its own pull. However, it also acts as an unwinding loom that gives life meaning.

Just as Auden was reaching the peak of his poetic powers, the world’s deadliest war broke out, brutal and incomprehensible. Perhaps art, which we often call the most effective coping mechanism to deal with incomprehensions of mortality and life, is what Auden used. He looked at the stars and saw “ironic points of light” above a world “defenseless under the night”; he looked at himself and saw a creature “composed like them of Eros and of dust, beleaguered by the same negation and despair.”

“September 1, 1939” became a generation’s life-raft for “the waves of anger and fear” subsuming the unexamined certainties of yore, splashing awake the “euphoric dream” of a final and permanent triumph over evil. But the war went on, and in the protracted post-traumatic reckoning with its aftermath — this gasping ellipsis in the narrative of humanity — Auden revised his understanding of the world, of life, of our human imperative, and so he revised his poem.

He made the most profound one-word change in human history by changing the last line of the penultimate verse to show his war-annealed realization that entropy is the dominant force. The original version read: “We must love one another or die” — an impassioned plea for compassion as a moral imperative, the withholding of which assures the destruction of life. Eighty-million lives were lost because the appeal was unanswered. Auden came to feel that his reach for poetic truth had been rendered “a damned lie,” later lamenting that however our ideals and idealisms may play out, “we must die anyway.”

A decade of disquiet after the end of the war, he changed the line to read: “We must love one another and die.”

Liminal Days. Prints available.

But there was a private reckoning beneath the public one — this, after all, is the history of humanity, of our science and our art. Auden was working out the world in the arena where we so often wrestle with the vastest, austerest, most abstract and universal questions about how reality works — the fleshy, feeling concreteness of personal love.

In the summer of 1939, just before the world came unworlded, Auden met the young aspiring poet Chester Kallman and fell in love, fell hard, fell dizzily into the strangeness of spending “the eleven happiest weeks” of his life amid a world haunted by death. As the war raged, Auden’s passionate love became his lifeline and saved him. But Auden, already well into his thirties, kept longing for a stable and continuous relationship of mutual fidelity — the closest thing to a marriage their epoch allowed — and Kallman, barely twenty, kept wounding him with the scattered and discontinuous affections of self-discovery.

Throughout the cycles of heartache, Auden refused to withdraw his love — a stubborn and devoted love, opposing the forces of dissolution and disorder, outlasting the fraying of passion and the abrasions of romantic disappointment, until it buoyed their bond over to the other side of the tumult, to the stable shore of lifelong friendship.

Auden spent the rest of his life in Europe with Kallman. They spent twenty New York winters as roommates in a second-floor apartment at 77 St. Marks Place in the East Village, later marked with a stone plaque emblazoned with lines from Auden’s ode to the foolish, fierce devotion that had prevailed over the lazy entropy of romantic passion to salvage from its wreckage the lasting friendship, the mutual cherishment and understanding that had bound them together in the first place.

Wystan and Chester 1940s.

“The More Loving One” — the second verse of which became the epigraph of Figuring, and which appears in Auden’s indispensable Collected Poems (public library) — is a poem both profoundly personal and profoundly universal, radiating a reminder that no matter the heartbreak, no matter the entropic undoing of everything we love and are, we are survivors. It is at once a childish fantasy chalked on the blackboard of consciousness — we do not, after all, survive ourselves — and a blazing manifesto for being, for the measure of maturity, for the only adequate attitude with which to go on living with the incremental loss that is life itself.

The animated interlude season 7 is now in its seventh installment Verse from the Universe (which returns as a live show next week), “The More Loving One” comes alive in a reading by astrophysicist, author, and OG Universe in VerseJanna, who is a co-author, has instilled many a wonderful poem), was animated by Taiwanese filmmaker Liang-Hsin Huang and winged with original music from Garth Stevenson (canadian double bassist, composer and nature-celebrator).

W.H. Auden

Looking at the stars I see that they are very familiar to me
For all their cares, they can take me to hell.
On earth, however indifference seems to be the worst.
Fear must be feared from both man and beast.

What would we do if there were no stars?
It was a passion that drove us to do what we did.
Equal affection is impossible if there are no partners.
The more loving person be me.

You are my admirer, I suppose
Stars that don’t care a bit
Now I see them.
I had to miss one all day.

Did all the stars disappear?
Learn to view the sky empty.
Feel its complete dark divine.
Although this may take me some time.

The following chapters were previously published in this series: Chapter 1, (The evolution of life and its birth), with Joan As Police Woman (Joan Dickinson) Chapter 2, (Henrietta Leavitt and Edwin Hubble), Chapter 3, (trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell’s poetry and the mysteries of our mortal starst), Chapter 4, (dark matter, the mystery of our mortal starst) Chapter 5, (a singularity-ode about our primval connection with nature, featuring Marissa Davis and Amanda Palmer); and Edna St. Vincent Millay, the conservation of energy and symmetry, Chapter 6, (Emmy Noether and the conservation of electricity, with Edna St. Vincent Milla St. Vincent Milla St. Vincent Milla St. Vincent Milla St. Vincent Milla St. Vincent Milla St.

Giving = Being Loving

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