Poetry About the Law

Posted on Categories Popular Culture & Law, Public

This month is National Poetry Month, as noted by Professor Lisa Mazzie and Professor Bruce Boyden in their blogs.

Those of you who are interested in both poetry and law would enjoy reading Poetry of the Law: From Chaucer to the Present, edited by David Kader and Michael Stanford. Many poems selected for the anthology address some aspect of civil or criminal trial law. The following poem by William Cowper is about a property dispute.

William Cowper (1731-1800)

The Case Won

Two neighbors furiously dispute
A field the subject of the suit;
Trivial the spot–yet such the rage
With which the combatants engage,
‘Twere hard to tell who covets most
The prize, at whatsoever cost.
The pleadings swell.  Words still suffice;
No single word but has its price;
No term but yields some fair pretence
For novel and increased expence.

Defendant, thus, becomes a name
Which he that bore it may disclaim,
Since both, in one description blended,
Are plaintiffs when the suit is ended.

Cowper’s poem brought to mind Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall.”  I came to understand this poem in a new way when I took Property in law school.

Robert Frost (1874-1963)

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs.  The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear out fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side.  It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors?  Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants its down.’  I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself.  I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me–
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
he says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

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