The Hidden Law (1940)

Hello people. I found this poem which on the first sight seems related to science in quiet an unclear way. As some literary critic writes, it “could point towards scientific atheism as much as to any mythic system.” (Emig) My first impression is that the universal law as depicted here, could be interpreted as both science and God. My second impression follows below.

The Hidden Law

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;
If we escape it in a car,
If we forget It in a bar,
These are the ways we’re punished by
The Hidden Law.

June 1940

first impression

It is apparent that we are confronted with something unintentional, powerful and independent. While not interfering with human life at all, not even with other laws (second line), it has a fateful impact on us. Being radically patient, it remains neutral even in the utmost danger encountered in daily life (car, bar). There is no way for humans to oppose this impact. No mathematics (first stanza), no language (first and second stanza) and no political powers (second stanza) could ever stop it. However, by giving us the choice to lie, to escape or to forget it, it reaches a maximum of power. Its passivity even punishes us for own mistakes.

            This seems either like a perfect description of a non interfering God or of objective science being utterly independent from our false projections on nature (first stanza). Probably there are even more interpretations possible, which make use of the interpretative flexibility offered by Auden. Writing about “Auden and ecology”, for instance, Emig notes that the poem could be read as the “attempt to come to terms with definitions of the self in (…) an environment in which the only reassurance lies in attributing ‘utter patience’to any such hidden law” (ibid., p. 216). Auden leaves no definite clue to pinpoint the “Hidden Law” and scholars like Emig therefore might tend to inscribe their own understanding of Auden in this poem. Interestingly, they thereby confirm a point made by the poem: It “takes human beings as they are, And answer nothing when we lie”.

second impression 

            This gives an impulse for a more consequent reading of the poem. A reading which might lead the poem back to itself in a literal way. Elsewhere Auden himself writes about the ideal poem as a self-related system, a “verbal society” (The Virgin and the Dynamo). “The Hidden Law” might be an experiment to consequentially create such an enclosed system; a poem which describes nothing but itself.  Let me go through the poem line by line in order to find validation for this:

First stanza: First of all the poem itself does not deny systematic approaches of interpretation applying the “laws of probability”. Just as towards all physical and human environment, it is indifferent towards false interpretation. It is just there, black on white, ‘not doing anything’. The passiveness of the poem, a topic which we talked about in class before, is put into action by “The Hidden Law”: This poem does not speak for itself; we have to read it. But it speaks about itself, when we read it. 

Second stanza: Grammatically speaking, the subject is the object in this stanza: It is in itself  “the only reason why” nothing can restraint “The Hidden Law” – a formal detail, which confirms the self-referential character of the poem quiet strongly, I think. The two external parasites, which attempt to change the law here, are politics and systematic language.

Third stanza: This is the most challenging part to validate my interpretation of the poem asspeaking about itself as such “The Hidden Law”. Ironically, as it is written in the last stanza, we can escape the poem in a car or “forget it in a bar”. To be realistic, there are probably just a few people who would try to escape poems in their cars. Most of them, I assume, are poets themselves. Seeking for distraction from his creative work, one might speculate, Auden once forgot about a poem and got punished by its own work later on. ‘The artist killed by his work’ – a bit a far-fetched theme, I admit, but maybe not too far-fetched if you think of all interpretation and criticism in which artists do not recognize their own work anymore. Already the first stanza gave rise to Auden’s critical view on the work of literary critics, which does not harm the poem. It harmsthe artist, one might conclude after reading the third stanza. An alternative interpretation of this last section refers to us as readers. A poem’s “utter patience” does not try to stop us “if we want to die” or just “escape it”. However, we might miss something, namely art, which could have saved our lives in the first place. This adds on a former remark: ‘This poem does not speak for itself; we have to read it. But it speaks about itself, when we read it’ – and we definitely should, the third stanza concludes. This interpretation is equally close to Auden’s own understanding as the first one. In his account poems indeed have a central role in society (Virgin and the Dynamo). 

No matter which alternative you might prefer, all in all this poem is another instance for the high stance of art in Audens worldview. It reflects poetry as an unintentional “Hidden Law”. It is just written there, independent from possible reception, but fateful for those who read it and even those who miss it. 

 Jeremias Herberg



Emig, Rainer (2004): Auden and Ecology. In Smith, Stan (Ed.): The Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 212-225

 The Virgin and the Dynamo. In Auden, W.H.: The Dyer’s Hand and other essays.

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