In the two pieces he composed shortly thereafter, he struggled to answer the question he had indirectly posed in both “September 1, 1939″ and “Musee des Beaux Arts”: Is there a law that cannot be ignored, that applies under all circumstances, and that applies to all people? Is there a law which does not turn away from human suffering?
The first of these two poems was “Law Like Love.” It opens with seven stanzas worth of philosophical taxonomy: law, according to the gardeners, is the sun, an ancient, immutable, inscrutable thing. According to the old, the law is collected wisdom; according to the young, it is sensation. Auden spared not clergymen:
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.
Nor, amusingly, judges:
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.
Scholars, he wrote, argue that law is purely relative, no more than the crimes designated at any given time or place, to be adopted and discarded like “the clothes men wear/Anytime, anywhere.” Or it is the voice of the politically powerful – the “crowd,” a Kierkegaardian concept – superimposed against the voice of the individual in need of protection from the excesses of power:
And always the loud angry crowd,
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.
Auden ultimately rejected each of these approaches, but he hesitated to say what law is. Instead, he suggested only what law is like: It is like love. The comparison seems mawkish at first, but he quickly disabuses us of our sentimentality:
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.
Man-made law, like love, often fails us. It seems arbitrary. It reduces us to tears. And it is seldom kept, or at least it must have appeared that way to the Europeans who stood between Hitler and his ascendancy to total power. In the moment of time within which “Law Like Love” was composed, the laws of men were absolutely worthless. None of the conventions of Versailles, none of the limits imposed by the nations opposed to Hitler’s aggression has prevented the war. And though Auden could not have known it at the time, the law would and could do nothing to prevent the establishment of Auschwitz or the other Nazi factories of death.
The poem leaves us stranded on the edge of a very troubling place. If the law is such a fickle thing, what do we gain by submitting ourselves to it? If the law can do nothing to protect the powerless – and in truth it cannot, since ultimately law is determined by those with sufficiently concentrated power – what is its value?
The answer, for Auden, lay in “The Hidden Law,” written as a sort of postscript to “Law Like Love.”
The Hidden Law does not deny
Our laws of probability,
But takes the atom and the star
And human beings as they are,
And answers nothing when we lie. It is the only reason why
No government can codify,
And verbal definitions mar
The Hidden Law. Its utter patience will not try
To stop us if we want to die:
When we escape It in a car,
When we forget It in a bar,
These are the ways we’re punished by
The Hidden Law.
The “hidden” law is natural law, a concept Auden had been struggling with for some time. Although he had been an atheist, by the nineteen thirties Auden was a man of deep religious faith who had begun reading Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard drew a distinction between human love and divine love, and similarly between human law and divine law. Human law, like human love, is fallible. Natural law is not. Ultimately, Auden believed, the Fascists would not escape it.
Auden’s prediction proved correct, but at enormous cost. After the war, he was hired by the United States Strategic Bombing Surveys Morale Division to tour Germany and interview civilians there. The Allies wanted to know whether prolonged bombing had hastened Germany’s surrender. He said little about the experience, but years later he wrote in “Memorial for the City”:
The steady eyes of the crow and the camera’s candid eye See as honestly as they know how, but they lie. The crime of life is not time. Even now, in this night Among the ruins of the Post-Vergilian City Where our past is a chaos of graves and the barbed-wire stretches ahead Into our future till it is lost to sight, Our grief is not Greek: As we bury our dead We know without knowing there is reason for what we bear, That our hurt is not a desertion, that we are to pity Neither ourselves nor our city: Whoever the searchlights catch, whatever the loudspeakers blare, We are not to despair.