‘Their Lonely Betters’ is a short, four-stanza lyric poem by W H Auden. It was probably written in 1950, linking the development of some of the considerations of the collection Nones (1951) to Homage to Clio (1960). It opens with the speaker, sitting in his garden, reflecting on the idea of speech and the sense of the passage of time as uniquely human capacities.
The ‘vegetables and birds’ rustle and sing respectively, while the speaker reflects in the first stanza, ‘It seemed to me only proper’ that they do not have the gift of language. In the third stanza, the speaker directly contrasts their communicative abilities with those of the poet, pointing out that not one of them could have ‘with a rhythm or a rhyme / Assumed responsibility for time’. The poem seems partly to be a reflection on its own mode, the lyric ‘I’.
For the critic John Fuller, the tone of the poem comes from Robert Frost, one of Auden’s earliest influences; he would lecture about Frost in Oxford in 1957, and the ‘promises to keep’ seem to be a direct allusion to Frost’s similarly proportioned poem ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’.
The critic Edward Mendelson argues that the composition took place as Auden was reading the works of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and theorising the difference between first- and third-person speech. ‘First-person speech’, for Mendelson,
was the product of a personal responsibility, of words spoken in one’s own name by an I addressing a second-person you. Third-person speech reduced oneself to an anonymous he or she or they.
Yet even in the title, we see that the human state is not necessarily preferable; though ‘Better’ for various reasons, we are ‘Lonely’ for those same reasons.
The poem even suggests that some comparison can be made between the two states: just as ‘rustling flowers’ have to wait for ‘some third party’ (presumably a bee or bird) ‘to get mated’, so humans ironically have agency taken out of their hands by their language, and have to ‘count days and wait for certain letters’. Similarly, in extremes of emotion, ‘We, too make noises when we laugh or weep’. ‘Like most of Auden’s lyric writing,’ Mendelson continues, the poem’s ‘half-hidden central subject is love’.