Law like Love
W. H. Auden
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
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.
Now that his birth centenary is finally here, I thought we’d let Auden speak for himself.
‘Law like Love’ is one of my favourite Auden poems. It’s also one of my favourite poems to read aloud. I’m always amazed by the way Auden gives each speaker in the poem a distinctive voice, so that even just reading the poem on the page you can clearly tell one speaker from the other. This is astonishing because it’s done with such deftness – scarcely anyone in the first half has more than a sentence or two to say – and within a poem that, overall, is infectious in its rhythm. On top of which it’s a fascinating conceit and one that Auden, true to form, milks for everything it’s got.
Link courtesy: Salon.com audio (also featuring a recording of Under Which Lyre)
More commentary here.