Law, Like Love

Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,
Law is the one
All gardeners obey
To-morrow, yesterday, to-day.

Law is the wisdom of the old,
The impotent grandfathers feebly scold;
The grandchildren put out a treble tongue,
Law is the senses of the young.

Law, says the priest with a priestly look,
Expounding to an unpriestly people,
Law is the words in my priestly book,
Law is my pulpit and my steeple.

Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,
Speaking clearly and most severely,
Law is as I've told you before,
Law is as you know I suppose,
Law is but let me explain it once more,
Law is The Law.

Yet law-abiding scholars write:
Law is neither wrong nor right,
Law is only crimes
Punished by places and by times,
Law is the clothes men wear
Anytime, anywhere,
Law is Good morning and Good night.

Others say, Law is our Fate;
Others say, Law is our State;
Others say, others say
Law is no more,
Law has gone away.

And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

If we, dear, know we know no more
Than they about the Law,
If I no more than you
Know what we should and should not do
Except that all agree
Gladly or miserably
That the Law is
And that all know this
If therefore thinking it absurd
To identify Law with some other word,
Unlike so many men
I cannot say Law is again,

No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.
Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity,
We shall boast anyway:
Like love I say.

Like love we don't know where or why,
Like love we can't compel or fly,
Like love we often weep,
Like love we seldom keep.

by WH Auden

Comments (2)

What is the contradiction of in the stanza 2
W. H. Auden, an eminent British modern poet, has produced a great variety of poems in various styles and on a wide range of subjects. Auden’s poetry is worth reading, but due to his manipulation of his unique style and modernist techniques, it is rather challenging for readers to grasp the exact central idea of his poetry. This term paper attempts to analyze one of his poem titled “Law Like Love” as it interests the author by its typical embodiment of Auden’s style, and the idea it conveys. Since very little information about it has been acquired so far, the author will approach it from her own perspective and understanding. When reading this poem, the reader’s attention may be immediately captured by the somewhat eccentric title “Law Like Love”. In literature, love is an eternal, much explored subject matter while law is not favored as much by poets as by lawyers. However, Auden seems rather concerned about law in his poem. Such kind of peculiar association and abstact comparison remind readers of John Donne’s metaphysical poetry. Having seen the title, readers will not feel very abrupt or startled in the following parts. In fact, the unexpected, queer title testifies some of Auden’s features. As Edment Wilson put it, “He [Auden] is English in his toughness, his richness, his obstinacy, his adventurousness, his eccentricity” (Wilson 21) . Then what comes into readers’ sight is a series of cases to illustrate different definitions and implications of law. In the first stanza law is compared to the sun, which is the representative of rules and regulations in nature. For the gardeners, they can do nothing but obey the rules of nature and be alert to the changes of seasons and weather. Nature and man here are set in the opposite position. In the second stanza, law is the wisdom and experience of the old, which is challenged by the senses of the young. We can find the “impotent” old man “feebly scold” the inexperienced youth, while the latter retort in “treble” voice that law is their new senses and ideas. With concise and vigorous language Auden has pictured the images of the old and the young vividly. The young and the old here form another pair of oppositions. Neither of them would like to lose the dominant power in this world, which results in many contentions between generations. Then in the next stanza, law is said to be the religious doctrines and creeds by the priest. There are always people who wants to impose their own ideas upon others such as the old grandfather, the priest, and the judge in the fourth stanza. Looking down his nose, the authoritative judge severely declares, “Law is The Law.” Law means the clauses and decrees listed in legal documents and what the judge explains. Reading this stanza, many readers may conjure up the self-complacent judge before their eyes. Despite the sarcasm, the poet always keeps detached, which is quite different from the romantic poets who place emphasis on their own subjective emotion and intuition. Being impersonalized is characteristic of modernist poetry, and is also one feature of this poem, as we can see here. Readers so far cannot find obvious hints of the poet’s stance or voice, such as the words “I” or “my”. The fifth stanza depicts the scholar’s attitude toward law: law is the record of crimes committed by mankind; law is both protection and restriction for men since “[law] Law is the clothes men wear / Anytime, anywhere”; law is everyday routine life, “Law is Goodmorning and Goodnight”. Also some people take law seriously as Fate or State while some cynical people despair of the chaotic world and say, “Law is no more / Law has gone away.” Groups of fanatic people cry for political rights and declare: “Law is We.” In contrast, some idiots, very likely here referring to the advocates of some ideas, softly say “Law is Me”. In objective, scientific tone, Auden portrays those who want to alter the world according to their own will and attempt to impose their principles and laws upon the world. Till now in terms of law Auden has dissected the muti-dimensional world in his first seven stanzas, leaving the readers kind of a panorama of the reality. The detached, clinical attitude and modern, scientific imagery may leave deep impression upon the reader. In the eighth stanza, the ellipsis of grammatical and logical connectives here leads to much confusion in readers’ understanding. The poet seems to assume somewhat private tone here since he uses the words “dear, ” “we, ” and “love.” But even he directly speaks to his love, he is reasoning logically. First he freely admits neither he nor his love has a more thorough understanding of the complexities of law and both of them have the natural tendency to break the law “into an unconcerned condition.” Then “timidly”, humbly, the poet identifies law with their love. “Like love we don’t know where or why, / Like love we can’t compel or fly, / Like love we often weep, / Like love we seldom keep.” The last stanza adds compelling force and weight to the poem. Love becomes the interpreter of law and the world. Consequently, the abstract conception of law suddenly becomes clear and accessible. Unlike the definitions above listed, the freshness and surprising resemblance between love and law may win the readers’ nodding smile. Just like love, law is intangible and obscure; law is a necessity but often causes pains at the same time; few people can escape from the restrictions of law but few can always observe it. “Like love we seldom keep”, he is frank enough to reveal the bitter truth in the chaotic world of 1940, when the second world war had broken all the previous orders and laws. Like love, law is capricious and untrustworthy because the modern world can no longer provide order and eternal safety. The poet sounds pessimistic and ironical about love, law and life. Anyway, by means of love, the poet gives us a more plausible definition which is free from illusions or misleading conceptions. Comparatively, other definitions derived from different purposes and outlooks of life seems delusory, one-sided and unconvincing. “A religious poet who is also a clown, a virtuoso who is incorrigibly didactic, a satirist who is also a musician and lyricist” (Spears,24) , Auden is likely to perplex and annoy many readers as well as critics. The essential qualities of Auden’s style are “a quickness and lightness of touch, a clearness of phrases and sentence, a caustic wit, and an ironic hardness.” (Zhang 330) . It also holds true of this poem. The poet’s tone is conversational, discursive, mildly ironical but completely under control during the development of this poem. It seems that he is a philosopher calmly discussing some problem with his familiar friends. With the strategy of detachment learned from T. S. Eliot, even though there is subtle irony among the lines, Auden can always manage to suppress his emotion and keep his delicate position. As far as the form is concerned, Auden adopts irregular form which is at the same time in accordance with the conventionality. He is not as radical as Eliot technically but he has learned the direct, clear language style. As we can see, most syntactic structures of the lines are simple and standard, which is different from the frequent use of inversion in traditional poetry. This iambic poem has a certain irregular rhyme scheme. We can also find four-line stanza, six-line stanza, five-line stanza, and even 22-line stanza. In this way, Auden produces variety in meter, rhyme, and stanza. He doesn’t allow himself to be restricted too much by “laws” in poetry nor go too far to maintain the rhythmical beauty of poetry. Imagery is vital for poetry, while one image comes after another, “the reader’s mind finds cross-connexion after cross-connexion between them” (Brooks 266) , then the reader will be more active during the process of interpretation of this poem. Those who are used to romantic poetry and expect imagery such as daffodils or stars will be failed by this poem since the imagery here mainly refers to different pictures of different people. But if he is careful enough to notice the relation among the images in this poem, the reader may come to the conclusion that people have their own stereotypical conceptions and principles, from which only one aspect of the world is defined. The true-to-life images of different people owe much to Auden’s superb skill of sketching. With quick and light touch, Auden catches the key features of his subjects and draws the caricature of them. “[Auden] He has buzzed his way around the flower garden of the intellect, taking a bit of inspiration here [and there], with the result that his detractors, oblivious of the taste of the final product, often accuse him of some overt or hidden insincerity” (Hughes 26) . Hence in “Law Like Love” it is quite possible for some readers to find Auden insincere, superfluous, and lacking in emotion. This paper only provides very superficial analysis of “Law Like Love” from one perspective. It is open to many interpretations and for the author, its very worth lies in the richness of thoughts and possibilities of interpretation. In this sense, it is a poem full of meanings and secrets for readers to dig up, hence deserves more of reader’s attention as well as comments. Works Cited Auden, W. H. “Law Like Love”. The Norton Anthology of Poetry,3rd ed. Ed. Alexander W. Allison, et al. New York: Norton,1983.1101-1102. Brooks, Cleanth & Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Poetry. New York: Henry Holt,1951. Hughes, John W. “Insights and Oversights in the Poetic Vision”. CLC. Vol.2nd. Ed. Carolyn Riley & Barbara Harte. Detroit,1974.26. Spears, Monroe K. “The Poetry of W. H. Auden: The Disenchanted Island”. CLC. Vol.2. Ed. Carolyn Riley & Barbara Harte. Detroit,1974.24. Wilson, Edmund. “W. H. Auden in America”. CLC. Vol.2nd. Ed. Carolyn Riley & Barbara Harte. Detroit,1974.21. Zhang, Boxiang. A Course Book of English Literature. Wuhan: Wuhan UP,1997.