Is Law Like Love?

W.H. Auden’s report from 1600 Black Lives Matter Plaza


These past weeks, the world, certainly the United States, has watched — and many have participated in — a revolution in our streets like none before.

It isn’t over.

The most recent issue of the Academy of American Poets newsletter includes this timely (though she was born in 1878) stanza from Carrie Law Morgan Figgs’ poem “We are Marching”:

Up the streets of wealth and commerce,
     We are marching one by one
We are marching, making history,
     For ourselves and those to come.

When times are worst, wise minds analyze public events all citizens share and provide insights to help us understand the chaos. To make sense of things that seem imponderable, one thinks of writers like John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath; Winston Churchill’s memoirs of World War II; journalist Ed Murrow’s radio reports about war and McCarthyism; the works of law professors like Edmund Cahn and enlightening judges like Robert Jackson and Jerome Frank; and the words of inspiring moral leaders like Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

As I observed the last few weeks play out on television, my thoughts turned to W.H. Auden’s classic 1939 poem, “Law Like Love.” In it, he reminded readers that one’s prejudices, special interests, and varied cultures, even our ages, define law differently. Urban or rural, elderly or young, black or white — we define it differently.

Surely, we see this today in America, where our democratic world is so polarized. When citizens gathered in front of the White House at Lafayette Park to protest George Floyd’s murder, I turned again to Auden, and as before, found his insights to that event prescient. “Law like Love,” he wrote, makes us weep.

What follows is an excerpt from his poem:

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 here come the lines that I wish to share:

And always the loud angry crowd
Very angry and very loud,
Law is We,
And always the soft idiot softly Me.

Ronald Goldfarb is a Washington, DC, attorney and author. His book The Price of Justice and the Myths of Lawyer Ethics, with a foreword by Senator Bernie Sanders, will be published in October.

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