Law Like Love

How would you define law? What about love? If you don't have a neat, uncomplicated answer you're in good company. Poet W. H. Auden also struggles to the definitions both of those abstract ideas in his 1939 classic poem "Law Like Love." Eventually, his speaker comes to understand law only through its relation to love and humanity's natural limitations with both love and law. 

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Table of contents

    Law Like Love At a Glance

    Written By

    W. H. Auden

    Publication Date



    Free verse



    Rhyme Scheme


    Poetic Devices






    Frequently noted imagery

    The sun

    Impotent grandfathers feebly scold

    Treble tongue

    Pulpit and steeple

    Speaking clearly and severely

    Loud angry crowd

    Stating timidly



    Questioning, evaluative

    Key themes

    Individual experiences define personal reality

    The limitations of humanity


    Law is extremely difficult to define because, like love, it is dictated by people's personal experiences. In order for the law to be pure it needs to be objective, but because of people's bias and experiences, it will always be subjective.

    Law Like Love by W. H. Auden

    "Law Like Love" was published by British-American poet W. H. Auden in 1939. While the world was going through enormous social and political changes with World War II, Auden himself was also experiencing a personal transformation. "Law Like Love" was later republished in Auden's 1940 collection, Another Time.

    Auden was born in 1907 to a well-off family in England. By the time he left for the United States in 1939, he had already experienced literary success as a left-wing poet and playwright. Less than a year after he traveled to America, Britain declared war on Germany and entered into World War II. Auden had seen firsthand the effects of war when he travelled to Spain earlier that decade and wrote about the Spanish Civil War. He had seen laws deteriorate as political tensions mounted across Europe and countries were plunged into war.

    Staunchly opposed to Adolf Hitler's fascism, Auden was disturbed by how the Nazi Party manipulated the law and morality. Auden was influenced by Karl Marx's theories of socialism and communism, but he was also critical of radical communism such as in the Soviet Union. "Law Like Love" reflects on the concept of law, which was certainly affected during World War II.

    "Law Like Love" also reflects on the nature of love, of which Auden had firsthand experience. The same year this poem was published, Auden fell in love with Chester Kallman. Auden described their relationship as a "marriage." Auden and Kallman's relationship only lasted for two years partly because Auden wanted a monogamous relationship and Kallman did not, but the two lived together platonically until Auden's death in 1973.

    Law Like Love Summary

    Law means different things to everyone based on their life experiences. To the gardener, law is the sun. To the old it is wisdom, to the young it is their senses, and to priests it is religious books and teachings. Law, to judges, is simply "the Law" (17) and to scholars it is not black and white but rather "anytime, anywhere" (23). Law can be the whims of many or the solitary wishes of an individual. After attempting to define what law is to others, the speaker states that law cannot be defined by one simple term and it largely remains a mystery to him. He can, however, compare law to love: they are both defined by personal experience and there are unknowns about where they come from or why they happen. The speaker says both law and love make us weep, but as humans we struggle to keep our commitment to either.

    Law Like Love, hammer and anvil, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The speaker attempts to define law through metaphors and similes.

    Law Like Love Structure

    "Law Like Love" is rather unstructured, reflecting the speaker's insistence that law and love have no concrete, definite definitions. Some lines are much longer than others in a seemingly random way, and the length of the stanzas vary drastically. The shortest stanzas are only 4 lines long, while the longest one is comprised of 16 lines (depending on the edition of the poem). This diversity depicts how everyone has a different interpretation of law based on individual experiences, prejudice, and culture.

    There is, however, some slight structure in terms of content. The speaker's discussion of law and love are split relatively evenly throughout the lines of the poem. For example, lines 1-33 aim to define law in terms of individual experience, and lines 34-60 discuss law in terms of love in the latter half of the poem.

    Law Like Love Analysis

    The main literary devices in "Law Like Love" are metaphor, repetition, simile, anaphora, and alliteration.


    Although the title itself is a simile, the first half of the poem uses metaphors to attempt to define what law is. The metaphors are constantly shifting as the speaker introduces new groups of people with different experiences and ideals. Each metaphor makes the definition of law something completely different—and sometimes downright contradictory—to the previous definition. Metaphor shows the fluidity of the law and how it is subjective. Consider stanza one:

    Law, say the gardeners, is the sun,

    Law is the one

    All gardeners obey

    Tomorrow, yesterday, today." (1-4)

    Law Like Love, gardener analysis, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Because gardeners depend on the sun for their plants to grow, the sun is their interpretation of law.

    In this stanza, law is depicted as the law of nature. As the ultimate source of energy and light, the gardeners' lives and livelihoods depend upon the sun. Their days are defined by the authority of the sun, which ultimately creates law, telling them what to do and how to do it. In the next stanza, law shifts with a new metaphor:

    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." (5-8)

    Now law is dictated by differences in perception. To the old, it is their wisdom and their customs. To the young, it is their sensitivity to changes in their world and their ability to adapt. The metaphors continually shift, attempting to define law but showing how it is influenced by personal experiences and can even be contradictory at times.

    The subject interpretation of law is ultimately a weakness because people don't adhere to an objective morality. Instead, they allow their own prejudices, as presented in the metaphors, guide their lives. If no one can agree on the law as an ultimate morality, what good does the law do?

    The speaker says, "Unlike so many men / I cannot say Law is again" (45-46). He is aware of the selfishness when it comes to the law, and he says that it can no longer happen. He stops using the metaphor "Law is..." because he realizes that its not an objective presentation of law and morality but a superficial one.

    Metaphor: the comparison of two unlike things not using like/as

    Anaphora and simile

    Simile occurs in the title, linking the words law and love to one another. But it isn't until the final two stanzas that we see the simile realized as the speaker explains how law and love are the same. The final stanza is also the most apparent use of anaphora:

    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." (56-60)

    As opposed to the metaphors which contrasted with one another and meant wildly different things based on the individual, the similes build off of each other. The anaphora is striking, again and again stressing the connection between law and love.

    Interestingly, the speaker doesn't note the diversity inherent in the different types of love. Instead, love is seen as a connecting force that links all human life—and the laws by which we live it—together. It is also important to note that the similes stress the limitations and fallibility of human beings in love and in law: we don't fully understand it, we can't control it, we cry about it, and, often, we are unable to maintain our commitments to it.

    The speaker states that humans are flawed and imperfect. And, naturally, because most laws are human-made, the laws themselves are imperfect too. The speaker is implying that because humans are flawed the law cannot be one set ideal. It must be an objective understanding of morality that continues growing and evolving over time.

    Auden's ultimate purpose in comparing law and love isn't to argue that humans are flawed and should give up because of their imperfections. Instead, he compares law to love to emphasizes the way one must be compassionate, understanding, and open in all things. Law and love are deceptively simple ideals, with the goal to always do what's best. In reality, they are also some of the most complex aspects of life because there is no one perfect standard by which to live. Instead, Auden argues that both love and law must be adaptable to accommodate all of humanity's diversity.

    Simile: the comparison of two unlike things using like/as.

    Anaphora: the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of consecutive clauses


    The poem is full of repetitive words and phrases. The word "law" is repeated 26 times throughout the poem, and 17 of those times occur at the beginning of a line. This gives the stanzas a sense of unity and solidarity and keeps the focus entirely on defining law.

    In addition to law and love, the speaker employs repetition to stress certain characteristics of humanity. For example he stresses the word "priest(ly)":

    Law, says the priest with a priestly look,

    Expounding to an unpriestly people,

    Law is the words in my priestly book" (9-11)

    Law Like Love, preacher analysis, StudySmarterFig. 3 - The speaker stresses the word "priest" and religion's impact on law.

    With this repetition, he is showing that even the most religious of people use the laws for their own means and to set themselves apart from others. The priest presents his interpretation of the law to people and expects them to take his sermon as absolute truth. Instead of it giving an objective account of God, the priest is self-centered, noting how his people are "unpriestly" and how the book is "my priestly book."

    The speaker also shows just how abundant and varied humanity and is with the repetition of the word "others":

    Others say, Law is our Fate;

    Others say, Law is our State;

    Others say, others say" (25-27)

    The quick repetition of others shows the diversity of human identity, experiences, and opinions. The speaker also repeats the words "loud," "angry," "soft," "know," "should," and "timid." The repetition stresses those qualities in humanity and implies that they get in the way of truly understanding a universal law.

    Alliteration and tone

    The repetition lends itself to strong alliteration, which affects the tone of the poem. The alliteration of the "L" sound in the title "Law Like Love," causes readers to anticipated a hushed, reflective tone before the poem even begins. But at the onset of the poem, the soft "L" sound of the title is immediately juxtaposed with the harsh alliterative sounds in the first half of the poem. Consider the "T" in "treble tongue" (7), the "S" in "Speaking clearly and most severly" (14), and the "P" in "Punished by place" (21). These cases of alliteration are quite jarring compared to the soft "L" sounds, subtly reinforcing the idea that there is no one true correct definition of law or love and trying to understand it is a cacophony of different ideas.

    While the speaker is critical of everyone else's interpretation of love, as apparent in the harsh alliteration, the alliteration in the second half of the poem fully embodies the "L" sound that readers would expect with the title. The repetition of the alliterative "Like Love" five times at the end of the poem makes the speaker's definition of law and love more tender. The "L" sound is reminiscent of a lullaby as the speaker has an epiphany that law and love should both be gentle, nurturing, and adaptable.

    Try reading the poem aloud. Do you notice the clash between the alliteration of "L" and the other alliterative sounds? What else do alliteration do to the poem?

    Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sound at the beginning of a group of closely connected words

    Law Like Love Themes

    The main themes in "Law Like Love" are individual experiences define personal reality and the limitations of humanity.

    Individual experiences define personal reality

    When the speaker attempts to define law, he struggles to decide upon one singular definition. He quickly realizes that law means something different based on each individual person's perception of life and reality. Individuals and groups alike define laws however they want, regardless of what is most justified objectively:

    And always the loud angry crowd,Very angry and very loud,Law is We,And always the soft idiot softly Me." (30-33)

    Because individual experiences shape perspective and thus reality, people can interpret law for their own means. The speaker notes that everyone thinks they know what law is but in reality all they know is their personal experiences:

    ...all agreeGladly or miserablyThat the Law isAnd that all know this" (38-41)

    Their individual experiences dictate their understanding of law and morality in a completely subjective way.

    Do you think there's a way law can ever be objective? On the other hand, can you think of any laws that are subjective or arbitrary? What effect do they have?

    The limitations of humanity

    The inability to understand law objectively is presented as one of the limitations of being human. The speaker says,

    If we, dear, know we know no moreThan they about the Law,If I no more than youKnow what we should and should not do" (34-37)

    The speaker questions his own understanding of morality and agency as he states that no one really knows what they should or shouldn't be doing because they are so focused on how they can use law for themselves. The speaker then openly warns that, like everyone else, he is unable to overcome

    The universal wish to guessOr slip out of our own positionInto an unconcerned condition" (47-49)

    So even though the speaker realizes that personal bias detracts from a pure understanding of law, he is unable and unwilling to be unbiased. It is much easier to be unconcerned than to constantly be aware of personal bias and limitations. And because he gives in to his personal experiences and love, it detracts from his commitments to the law and morality: "Like love we seldom keep" (60).

    Law Like Love - Key Takeaways

    • "Law Like Love" was written by British-American poet W. H. Auden in 1939.
    • It was deeply influenced by the social and political turmoil occurring in Europe with the start of the Second World War.
    • It was also written the year that Auden met the love of his life, but their relationship was troubled due to his lover's infidelity.
    • "Law Like Love" compared human fallibility in love to the limitations and flaws in law.
    • The themes are individual experiences define personal reality and the limitations of humanity.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Law Like Love

    What is the theme in the poem "Law Like Love"?

    Individual experiences define personal reality

    The nature of love

    Law as a mystery

    What is the meaning of "Law Like Love"?

    Law is extremely difficult to define because, like love, it is dictated by people's personal experiences. Like love, we don't really know where law comes from, but we can't run from it or compel others through it. Law often makes us weep and we seldom keep our commitments to it. 

    Who is the poet of the poem "Law Like Love"?

    W. H. Aude wrote "Law Like Love."

    When did W. H. Auden write "Law Like Love"?

    He wrote the poem in 1939 during a time of great political and social change. 

    Why does Auden compare law to love?

    He says both are dictated by people's personal experiences. We don't know where either comes from, but we are bound to it. 

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    • 14 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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