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.
 

(This article originally appeared in the January, 2009 issue of the Maryland Bar Journal.  I have omitted an introduction added by the Journal’s editorial staff because I didn’t write it and frankly I don’t like it).

On August 31, 1939, German operatives carried out a carefully orchestrated attack on a radio station in Gleiwitz, a German town near the Polish border.  Wearing Polish military uniforms, they stormed the station, broadcast a brief anti-German message, and left behind them several dead prisoners masquerading as saboteurs.  Several other similar, but less well-known, attacks were carried out simultaneously as part of a plan by Heinrich Himmler to simulate Polish aggression against Germany.  One day later, the Germans condemned this Polish “offensive” and invaded.

At a little after four o’clock in the afternoon, the Luftwaffe began bombing the small Polish town of Wielun, a location of no industrial or military importance, destroying most of the city and killing 1,200 civilians.  A few minutes later, the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on a Polish military installation in the Free City of Danzig.  Two hundred fifty thousand heavily armed German troops advanced toward the Polish cities of Warsaw, Krakow and Lvov.  The Poles fought courageously but were outnumbered and out-gunned.

On September 3, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany.  Two weeks later, the Allies had done nothing and the Soviets entered eastern Poland.  The Polish government evacuated and re-formed in exile, and the Polish ambassador to Moscow was informed that as far as Stalin was concerned, the Polish state had ceased to exist.  Surrounded and starving, the military forces remaining in Poland surrendered on September 28, 1939, and a few days later German forces paraded through the streets of Warsaw.  The systemic genocide of Poles, Jews, Gypsies, Socialists, and other dissidents began.  Auschwitz was established about fifty miles south of Krakow only months after the German invasion.  The world was plunged into war.

During this time, the poet W.H. Auden sat in a movie theater in a German part of Manhattan and watched a Nazi propaganda film of the Polish offensive.  The audience cheered the images of Polish prisoners of war and screamed, “Kill them!  Kill them!”  Auden was horrified.  The experience helped inspire Auden’s poem, “September 1, 1939,” one of the best known modern poems (not least because it was often quoted during the aftermath of 9/11), and certainly one of Auden’s best known poems despite the fact that he later rejected it.  He rejected it eventually because he came to believe that its assertion that love would conquer all was insincere.  But the two poems that followed – “Law Like Love” and “The Hidden Law” – expressed Auden’s faith in an insuperable natural law which would remain constant, and which could be counted on, despite the failures of its human counterpart.   

Auden was not a stranger to conflict.  He had lived in Weimar Berlin in 1929.  Although the city was then still a haven for the intelligentsia, only a few years before Hitler had proclaimed his desire to hang Jews from every lamppost.  (Auden’s companion in Berlin, Christopher Isherwood, later wrote the book on which the musical Cabaret was based.)  He travelled through Germany again in 1934 while Hitler was violently consolidating his power.  In 1937, Auden went to Spain to write anti-Franco propaganda, and he and Isherwood toured China and published “Journey to a War,” a sort of travelogue about the Sino-Japanese War.

In 1938, perhaps prompted by what he had observed during his travels, Auden wrote his “Musee des Beaux Arts.”  The poem begins with the painting “Fall of Icarus,” in which Icarus careens towards death while a ploughman serenely guides his horses, a shepherd watches over his sheep, and a ship sails off on business of its own.  (Although in Auden’s time the painting was credited to Peter Breughel, most experts now consider that unlikely.)   

 Auden observed that human suffering occurs in isolation, while others go about their business:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

As war broke out, Auden might have been thinking about Icarus and his lonely, unattended death as he sat in a bar on Fifty-Second Street.  Around him, he wrote in “September 1, 1939,” sat “dense commuters” who clung to “their average day” and their “euphoric dream,” ignoring the events unfolding in Europe.  Auden, who had only a voice “to undo the folded lie,” railed against the law’s complacency in the face of suffering:

There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

It was a glorious, gorgeous poem composed in nursery rhyme-like iambs, a meter Auden often used when dealing with the most serious of subjects.  And it was absolute tripe.  Auden knew it.  He tried re-working it on several occasions, in one draft changing the line “We must love one another or die” to “We must love one another and die.”  But its assertion that he, Auden, no matter how gifted a poet, could singlehandedly give voice to hope in the face of European tyranny was at best naive and at worst insulting and arrogant.  Eventually he rejected the poem altogether.  In a letter to Scottish novelist and poet Naomi Mitchison, he called it “the most dishonest poem” he had ever written.

Auden often followed up his excesses with masterpieces, though.  (To be continued)