‘Law,’ by W.H. Auden (September, 1939)

Quick preface: for copyright purposes, I will not be including the entire text of this poem. Besides, it is a bit long. This essay should motivate people to read the original poem in full. The bibliographical reference to it is as follows: W.H. Auden: Selected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

It is the case that repeating a word over and over again by itself is a recipe for making any word meaningless. To the hearer, the word disappears back into the primordial chaos of mere noise, maybe retaining some of the grace of its aesthetic aural quality, but likely that will disappear as well. This is simply because words are made to occur together. It’s an obvious point, but for that reason easy to give little thought to. A word isolated from its companions dies. The life of a word is its meaning, and its meaning is sustained by its society.

Many poems take a word and explore its meaning. Poems are perhaps better places than dictionaries to do this, since a dictionary is often concerned to maintain clarity through the imposition of an observation. It observes that a word is used a certain way, and wishes, in as few words as possible, to give the lexical range of its denotation. But a poem can deal with a word’s connotations – its necessary but imprecise flexibility. Language is an odd union of the principles of the city and the jungle. It is a jungle inasmuch as humans are little in charge of its powers of generation, but like a city in that we try and manage what is generated. Perhaps then, the best metaphor for language is that it is like a garden: a union of natural growth and human intervention. A dictionary is a strict gardener; it saw what was done the year before, and wishes to maintain the order that led to prior fruitfulness. But a poem is more clever when it engages in the lexical task: it waits and watches the inner logic of organic vitality work its way into the world, and finds rather than imposes order there – perhaps with a little weeding though for good measure.

With this metaphor in hand, we can now say this: a dictionary would find little purpose in repeating a word over and over again in order to get at its meaning; such a technique has no formal function in it. Such inefficiency would be rooted out. But the poem can do this as a method for exploring a word’s growth within the great garden of culture. W.H. Auden’s “Unnamed Poem” of September, 1939, is just such a poem. It has no given name, so I will call it for our present purposes “Law.” And that is appropriate enough, since it is an exploration of the meaning of the word “Law.”

In “Law,” Auden repeats the word “law” no less than 27 times in a poem of 60 lines. That means that nearly half the lines in the poem contain the same word (though line 18 has two occurrences). At first glance, this is rather unique. Generally I think poets go for a variety of words within a poem, almost considering a crime in most cases to repeat a word twice (if it isn’t some very often used word, such as a conjunction or pronoun). And, as with the supposedly common rule – once or thrice, but never twice – if one does repeat some word more than twice, it is obviously not an accident resulting from inattention or poor vocabulary, but some intentional act. And most often what an author means to do is to explore the meaning that a word possesses by placing it within different syntactical contexts. There is often more revelation in witnessing the nuances found in slight shifts of meaning than in greater leaps, since one expects the greater leaps, expects to go from one word which means one thing to another which means something else. We must narrow our gaze, focus a bit, in order to see what changes have taken place when the same word is used, but with a different hue; in other words, we must pay more attention.

“Law, say the gardeners, is the sun….” The opening line of the poem us the first sense of Law that we bear witness to. What follows within the rest of the poem is a series of predicate definitions of Law. For example:

Law is the wisdom of the old….
…Law is the senses of the young….
…Law is the words in my priestly book….
Etc…

Alternate perspectives, each doggedly dogmatic in its own way, are given to us. There is something about the human perception of Law or a law that drives the one perceiving it into a commanding posture. The figures in the poem who holds these perspectives are treated with some soft condescension: the “impotent grandfathers,” the “priest with a priestly look,” the “judge as he looks down his nose,” or the “the loud angry crowd” and the “soft idiot” – these all are treated as individuals far more confident than is justified.

Yet, Auden is quite conscious of his own dismissiveness, and he turns it around with an admirable level of self-awareness:

…No more than they can we suppress
The universal wish to guess
Or slip out of our own position
Into an unconcerned condition.

Much of modernity has been and is an attempt to fight fire with fire; to turn the old supposedly unjustified dogmatisms, which have guarded human life, into things that are no longer law. To do this, one needs a new “unconcerned condition,” and that position within modernity is rationality, or the use of reason. Reason is, from this perspective, a kind of Ur-Law – the Law whose laws reveal all other laws. The metaphysics of modernity is founded on the existence of a faculty inconsistent with its own metaphysical conclusions, which attempt to be atheological, in the sense that there is no room for content beyond reason’s grasp. That is why we must continue to war over what Law is, even long after reason was supposed to have resolved the matter. Modernity is progressive not in spite of this, but because of it: contradiction and paradox seek resolution, and resolution is a process that pushes culture into change through time, from past to future. What Auden is doing here, in a little and unassuming way, is wondering at the whole mess on the tabletop.

I think it is difficult to deny that the tortuous labyrinth of European politics in the first half of the 20th century contributed to the environment on which Auden versifies. That same month – September, 1939 – (still before the war began), Auden wrote,1

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offense
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad….

This refers primarily to Germany, of course. It is, nevertheless, indicative that Auden was invested in contemplating the collective human condition (which is “politics”), which here he does by looking directly at our demands. The Nazis proclaimed the Law of the universal competition of the races within the species, and the further declared that men ought to live according to that law. In an odd sense, they drew on the tradition of natural law, perhaps rather sub-consciously. For them, “Law is our State,” the state conceived as the expression of the collective will of the race to dominate and to establish its place on Earth triumphant. This poem, I think – whether Auden intended it to be anti-Nazi or not (I think rather he may have pursued an anti-totalitarian line here if anything) – explores an alternate path of natural law: one that reflects on the reciprocity of our perceptions rather than the competitiveness of our desires or the judgments of our conscience:

Although I can at least confine
Your vanity and mine
To stating timidly
A timid similarity….

It is not thunderous in its denunciation of cruel forms of dogmatism; it is characteristically English in its mellowness. One senses in the complete poem Auden attempting to whittle down his little meditation on Law, through constant repetition, trying to find the common space for us to dwell together in. And does he come to Power or to Reason? He does not: he comes to Love. So in the last few lines of the poem:

… 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.

This Pauline movement from Law to Love betrays the subtle but present influence of his own Christian heritage (Auden would rejoin the Anglican Church in the following year). It is not saying too much to note that it is unlikely that he could have been morally or temperamentally capable of resolving the conflicts over Law in its various manifestations by any other means. Power and Reason, though realities for Auden, could not be ultimate. But even here the ultimate is treated with a light, reverent touch. Love is less certain. Love cannot be kept like Law, and even if kept is kept poorly. We can be opinionated and proud of Law and in Law-ness, but cannot be so with Love, since to do so would be to commit a performative contradiction and lose our contact with Love. One can opine on Law and become a Nazi or a Javert at some point down the line; one cannot do the same with Love: it will not allow it.

This ungraspable nature of Love is emphasized by the ambiguities of the grammar. One feels rather fully what is being said in these last lines, but without being able to express it in words with full clarity, precisely because the sentences being shot at us without punctuation are more suggestive than exact. The profundity of love shouldn’t be bottled up in such conclusive statements, but it still has to be stated. Auden takes advantage of the license allowed to poetic language, out in the wilds away from the land of prose, to give some sense of what Love is and of our reaction and inhabitation of it without giving us to the ability to say for certain in propositions just what we have. For we cannot have Love in our grasp; rather we must be in its. In the same sense, Law, unavoidable as it is for Auden, is not done away with, but is some kind of manifestation of Love. It is something we can grasp, use, rely upon. But if we demand that others obey it or demand they unsee it, since it cannot actually be there – either way, we demand too much. We cannot avoid living in Law; we can’t “… identify Law with some other word….”, but we cannot get along with it alone either. We are lost until we come to Love.

Now Auden doesn’t give a way to Love out of Law, but he didn’t mean to I think anyways. It is no failure to withhold what one does not have to give. It would have been too confident to presume an answer. Too many confident answers had condemned too many small worlds to death in Auden’s lifetime, and would continue to do so over the next few years. The world in 1939 needed subtlety, gentleness, an ability to take off one’s sandals and walk gingerly over holy ground. To disrespect the Holy is to perish in the end: as he wrote elsewhere and not long before:

We must love one another or die.2

I have enjoyed this poem very much, personally. I think it is a perfect example of a good but perhaps not great poem, but one that could only be written by a great poet one suspects. Above all else, I appreciate Auden’s thoughtful wit, which, when applied to the deepest of subjects makes them both properly mysterious and accessible all at once. And if the matter of his poetry has this quality so often, it is still made all the better for his supreme lyricism. The rhythms of this particular poem testify to that fact, and since the marriage of rhythm and theme is probably the most ancient of poetry’s obligations, Auden simply cements here for the reader his already exceeding reputation.

Featured image: ‘English Country Scene,’ by Edward Noel Barraud, image in the public domain.

  1. ‘September 1, 1939,’ Auden (1939) []
  2. 'Ibid.' []

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