Sarah Shotwell: A favorite poem

Law, Like Love
by W.H. Auden

When I was in graduate school at the University of Washington, I had the rather thrilling experience of taking a poetry criticism course from the great poet David Wagoner, who today is 85 years old and, thankfully, still teaching.  During our course, he frequently expressed the importance to the heart and mind of memorizing poetry. Sometime in the first week of class,  after some students had begun to bicker about the meaning of the law, he sat back in his chair and began to recite Auden’s poem, only whispering at first, and then building with an intensity and tenderness that took our breath away (He later told us that he had done the same thing while sitting on a rather important and volatile philosophy panel about the nature of the law). Whether it was that childlike nursery rhyme cadence or the gentle, humble turn at its end, the poem silenced us and moved me in an inexplicably visceral way.  I went on to memorize it, and I recite it regularly to keep it on my tongue. Auden’s stunning truth has now worked its way into my very heartbeat, just like my teacher said it would.

Sarah Shotwell, Writer
San Jose


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 anyvay:
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.

W.H. Auden


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