For gardeners, Law is the sun; they all obey the weather and seasons at all times. To the old, Law is collected wisdom, while to the young, sensory reality is truth and Law. The priest finds the Law in scripture, regardless of what the people think.
The judge clearly, in light of precedent, explains that “Law is The Law.” Scholars see law as socially constructed names for crimes, guided by cultural differences, like the different ways that people say “Good-morning and Good-night.” Various people say either that Law is “Fate” or the “State,” or that the old idea of Law “has gone away.” Meanwhile, “the loud angry crowd” defines Law as whatever they want, just as the “soft idiot” individual” claims that Law is “Me,” whatever he individually wants the law to be.
While it seems we do not know much about the law or “what we should and should not do,” we at least know that Law exists and should not be confused with what we want it to be. Nevertheless, this is difficult because of selfishness and, perhaps, love. We want to “slip out of our own position / Into an unconcerned condition” as though we knew how to set the laws of others’ conduct.
The speaker says we can at least compare law or lawgiving to love. Ultimately, law is like love because we do not really know where it comes from or why it has come, we cannot really compel others and yet we cannot flee from it, both law and love make us weep, and we “seldom keep” our commitments in both law and love.
Auden wrote “Law Like Love” 1939 during an extremely fecund period in which he also wrote “The Unknown Citizen,” “September 1, 1939,” “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” and “Musèe des Beaux Arts.”
The poem muses on just what the law is in light of what others claim it is. The poem presents a panoply of people and possibilities, all of which seem true enough to some degree. In agriculture and gardening, for example, the primary Law is apparently the sun; all actions are oriented around it and its changes. Law can be seen in the “wisdom of the old,” for they have experienced the ways of the world and can apply general principles based on their experience—and the old can “shrilly scold” whether they really know what’s best or not.
At the same time, the principle behind the law might not be that which has power (the sun, or the divine as interpreted through a priest or scripture) or experience (the aged), but that which has immediate reality, which is why “the senses of the young” also seem to carry lawmaking authority to guide action. A child’s inclination can be said to be unfettered by the distorting weight of civilization. Indeed, this seems to be the point of “law-abiding scholars” who claim no natural basis for moral law—as, perhaps, the philosopher Nietzsche claimed that ideas like “good” and “evil” are socially constructed—the evidence is that different cultures punish different things, just as they wear different clothes and use different words for “Good-morning,” as though law and morality are just fashion and emotion.
This point of view is not far from what judges might say, that is, that they primarily interpret their society’s laws and apply precedents: “Law is as I’ve told you before … “Law is The Law.”
Another kind of power or self-actualization leads to different claims to have the law for oneself. “Always” does “the loud angry crowd” claim tyranny of the majority to impose its own views on others. Meanwhile, “the soft idiot” claims a unique law for himself or herself, with special laws and exceptions that apply to “Me”—what the philosopher Kant argued was immoral.
The repetition of “Law” and “Law is” in the poem emphasizes the multiple ways that people interpret the Law for their own ends. The irregular length of stanzas similarly emphasizes this point. The rhymes, mainly in the form of couplets, seem to provide ironic distance from each group of people and what they say the Law is.
The problem presented in the poem is that none of the different kinds of people lets an ultimate objectivity guide their morality and action. If there is a natural law, an ultimate morality, judges might say that this is what provides their judgment in difficult or new cases, but in this poem they do not say that. The divine law is presented only as mediated twice through the priestly interpretation of scripture. The sun shines differently and requires different actions in different times and places and, besides, does not help very much outside of agriculture.
People may claim “That the law is / And that all know this,” but specifying it is more difficult than people think. In the long transitional stanza from the subject of law to the subject of love, the poem suggests that “we, dear, know we know no more / Than they,” all of those above, “about the law.” But what really seems to guide people’s idea of law is their own prejudices or selfishness or, to say it more politely, their loves. They “identify Law with some other word.” Philosophically the challenge is to “slip out of our own position / Into an unconcerned condition,” as Kant might approve.
Perhaps this kind of objectivity is impossible for most people, or all people, even if it would be moral and desirable. Perhaps, like it or not, law is like love. This is how the poem concludes, with an AABB quatrain with the repeated opening “Like love we …” all four times. Law, it seems, is like love in that we do not really know where it comes from or where it is taking us. It does not really compel us, and yet we cannot escape it (“fly” as in “flee”). Both law and love make us weep because we cannot freely get and keep what we want. And despite our promises, we “seldom” obey the law or remain true to what we love.
The paradox is that we know there is and should be law, yet we cannot nail down what it is; we want to live by certain rules but cannot. English professor and literary critic Walter Jost sees this poem as presenting a middle way, providing “a bridge between philosophy and poetry,” that is, providing hope that we can live with good approximations of objective law without descending into solipsism or the myth of pure social construction. Jost reminds us that each of the metaphors earlier in the poem does shed light, after all, on what law is. We can use such metaphors, Jost argues, as starting points for learning more about the law. If we take those metaphors seriously, we can analyze them creatively and incorporate them into stronger accounts of the law.