Poetry About Law:

If you share my interest in this, and know Russian, check out Yuliy Kim's The Lawyer's Waltz, which I just heard a week ago and much liked. It was written about lawyers who defended Russian dissidents, but setting aside one detail, it can equally well work about defense lawyers generally -- whether as praise, or just as reflection of their perspective even if one doesn't share it. If anyone has a pointer to an online sound file for the song, please pass it along; hearing this is better than just reading it. Likewise if anyone has a pointer to a good translation, though of course like all metered and rhymed poetry, this would be very hard to translate.

Incidentally, I've long been surprised by how little good poetry there is about law -- real poetry (whether serious or not), and not just doggerel. The only material I've found so far in English is Auden's Law Like Love, Auden's The Hidden Law, and Kipling's Law of the Jungle. If you have more suggestions, please post them in the comments.

I think that I shall never see
A poem as lovely as a simple fee
11.6.2007 4:15pm
Try Empson's "Legal Fiction."
11.6.2007 4:20pm
JZB (mail):
Shakespeare, Sonnet 35:

No more be grieved at that which thou hast done:
Roses have thorns, and silver fountains mud;
Clouds and eclipses stain both moon and sun,
And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.
All men make faults, and even I in this,
Authorizing thy trespass with compare,
Myself corrupting, salving thy amiss,
Excusing thy sins more than thy sins are;
For to thy sensual fault I bring in sense--
Thy adverse party is thy advocate--
And 'gainst myself a lawful plea commence
Such civil war is in my love and hate
That I an accessary needs must be
To that sweet thief which sourly robs from me.
11.6.2007 4:34pm
JustAnotherLALawyer (mail):
"You are old," said the youth, "and your jaw is too weak
"For anything tougher than suet;
"Yet you ate up the goose, with the bones and the beak —
"Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law
"And argued each case with my wife.
"And the muscular strength which it gave to my jaw
"Has lasted the rest of my life!"
11.6.2007 5:42pm
Bottomfish (mail):
These the assizes: here the charge, denial,
Proof and disproof: the poem is the trial.
Experience is defendant, and the jury
Peers of tradition, and the judge is fury.

J. V. Cunningham, Epigraph from The Judge is Fury
11.6.2007 5:51pm
Bottomfish (mail):
To my surprise I have found the same four lines from Cunningham quoted in a post by EV for 12/15/2005. There is a lot of other poetry there but most of it is bad.
11.6.2007 6:26pm
Heinrich Heine had a few unflattering words here. Only a couple of lines about Landgericht employees who boozed up from the street hydrants, but then the military comes off even worse: they lick the pavement.
11.6.2007 6:28pm
Richard Gould-Saltman (mail):
Is Lewis Carroll considered "doggerel"? There's a courtroom scene in "Hunting of the Snark" (it's where I learned the expression "gown, bands and wig").

Then, of course, there's "Trial By Jury", an entire operetta about law, and that opera about the forged will, the name of which escapes me. . .
11.6.2007 6:43pm
Steve Johnson (mail):
Lord Neave's Toast to the Jolly Testator is a rather amusing take on trust and estate law.
11.6.2007 6:45pm
To Trial By Jury we could add these lines from Iolanthe:

"The law is the embodiment
Of everything that's excellent;
It has no kind of fault or flaw --
And I, my lords, embody the law."
11.6.2007 7:43pm
Oh, and Aeschylus' Eumenides is, in large part, about a trial.
11.6.2007 7:44pm
wm13 wrote at 11.6.2007 4:20pm:
Try Empson's "Legal Fiction."
Why thank you. I think I shall.

I've always thought it one of his most readily approachable and most humorous poems.
11.6.2007 7:53pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Unless there's more than one, the opera about the forged will is Puccini's Gianni Schicchi, the third and best part of Il Trittico (= the Triptych). Gianni Schicchi is also a character in (and resident of) Dante's Inferno, but I don't think he was a lawyer, just the forger of a will and impersonator of the dying.
11.6.2007 8:04pm
JZB (mail):

Then, of course, there's "Trial By Jury", an entire operetta about law, and that opera about the forged will, the name of which escapes me.

Were you thinking of Puccini's Gianni Schicchi?
11.6.2007 8:07pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Here's a Latin lawyer poem, Martial 6.19, that is the 19th epigram in Book VI, elegantly translated by T. W. Melluish:

It's not a case of poisoned cup,
Assault, or slitting throats;
I've had to have my neighbour up
For stealing my three goats.

You dwell on Punic faith and fury,
Pontic wars, and Cannaes,
But this they're asking on the jury,
"Prove he stole the nannies."

And now with gestures various
You've told in ringing notes
Of Sulla, Mucius, Marius,
Please mention my three goats.

(Line 3 is British for "I've had to sue my neighbor".)

Here's the Latin, for those who can handle it:

Non de vi neque caede nec veneno,
sed lis est mihi de tribus capellis:
vicini queror has abesse furto.
hoc iudex sibi postulat probari:
tu Cannas Mithridaticumque bellum
et periuria Punici furoris
et Sullas Mariosque Muciosque
magna voce sonas manuque tota.
iam dic, Postume, de tribus capellis.
11.6.2007 8:10pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Well, that's annoying. Stupid software added unwanted vertical spacing and deleted the indents. (The even-numbered lines of Melluish's translation should all be indented.)
11.6.2007 8:12pm
noname (mail):
There once was a Defendant named Rex,
In court over matters of sex.
When charged with exposure,
He replied with composure,
"De minimis non curat lex"
11.6.2007 9:46pm
Dennis Nolan (mail):
Check out the "Butch the Welder" segment of Edgar Lee Masters's Spoon River Anthology. Believe it or not, he turns the fellow servant rule into a moving poem.
11.6.2007 9:59pm
aizheng (mail):
11.7.2007 3:12am
JWR (mail):
Nursery Rhyme:

Tommy Trot, a man of law,
Sold his cot and slept on straw,
Sold his straw and slept on grass,
To buy his wife a looking glass.

Doggerel, I think.
11.7.2007 9:10am
Stan Morris (mail):
I've loved this since law school days when a professor used it.

The Lawyers Know Too Much

The lawyers, Bob, know too much.
They are chums of the books of old John Marshall.
They know it all, what a dead hand wrote,
A stiff dead hand and its knuckles crumbling,
The bones of the fingers a thin white ash.
The lawyers know
a dead man's thought too well.

In the heels of the higgling lawyers, Bob,
Too many slippery ifs and buts and howevers,
Too much hereinbefore provided whereas,
Too many doors to go in and out of.

When the lawyers are through
What is there left, Bob?
Can a mouse nibble at it
And find enough to fasten a tooth in?

Why is there always a secret singing
When a lawyer cashes in?
Why does a hearse horse snicker
Hauling a lawyer away?

The work of a bricklayer goes to the blue.
The knack of a mason outlasts a moon.
The hands of a plasterer hold a room together.
The land of a farmer wishes him back again.
Singers of songs and dreamers of plays
Build a house no wind blows over.
The lawyers--tell me why a hearse horse snickers
hauling a lawyer's bones.

-- Carl Sandburg
11.7.2007 11:46am
Wordsworth has a sonnet on capital punishment. It's worth a look.
11.7.2007 11:47am
dkp (mail):
Thomas Grey would say that most (if not all) of Wallace Stevens' poetry is about law. I'd add that Stevens' poetry is clearly concerned with the significance or meaning(s) of terms, and I'm pretty sure that a great deal of legal analysis and interpretation depends on the significance or meaning(s) of terms.

Did you see Vol 30 of Legal Studies Forum (2006). It's all lawyer/poets, on every page.
11.7.2007 1:39pm
A half recalled line and a bit of googling finally turned up a case citing a fairly well known satirical poem about lawyers. From John Leycester Adolphus, The Circuiteers, 1821:
Thoughts much too deep for tears subdue the Court
When I assumpsit bring, and god-like waive a tort!
See FN 4 in Jantzen Beach Associates, LLC v. Jantzen Dynamic Corp., 200 Or App 457, 115 P3d 943 (2005).
11.7.2007 3:00pm
Addendum and erratum:

Wikipedia entry with some biographical information about John Leycester Adolphus.

Title of the satirical poem is Circmteers, an Eclogue.
11.7.2007 3:18pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
Here is Hilaire Belloc's dialogue-poem, "Obiter Dicta", from Ladies and Gentlemen: for Adults Only and Mature at That (1932), collected in Cautionary Verses with the much more famous Bad Child's Book of Beasts and it's sequels. This is light verse, but not doggerel:


Sir Henry Waffle K.C. (continuing)

Sir Anthony Habberton, Justice and Knight,
Was enfeoffed of two acres of land
And it doesn't sound much till you hear that the site
Was a strip to the South of the Strand.

His Lordship (Obiter Dictum):

A strip to the South of the Strand
Is a good situation for land.
It is healthy and dry
And sufficiently high
And convenient on every hand.


Sir Henry Waffle K.C. (continuing):

Now Sir Anthony, shooting in Timberley Wood,
Was imprudent enough to take cold;
And he died without warning at six in the morning,
Because he was awfully old.

His Lordship (Obiter Dictum):

I have often been credibly told
That when people are awfully old
Though cigars are a curse
And strong waters are worse
There is nothing so fatal as cold.


Sir Henry Waffle K.C. (continuing):

But Archibald answered on hearing the news:--
"I never move out till I must."
Which was all very jolly for Cestui que Use
But the Devil for Cestui que Trust.

His Lordship (Obiter Dictum):

The office of Cestui que Trust
Is reserved for the learned and just.
Any villain you choose
May be Cestui que Use,
But a Lawyer for Cestui que Trust.


Sir Henry Waffle K.C. (continuing):

Now the ruling laid down
in Regina v. Brown
May be cited. . . .

His Lordship (rising energetically):

You're wrong! It may not!
I've strained all my powers
For some thirty-six hours
To unravel this pestilent rot.

The Whole Court (rising and singing in chorus):

Your Lordship is sound to the core.
It is nearly a quarter to four.
We've had quite enough
Of this horrible stuff
And we don't want to hear any more!

Little Silly Man (rising at the back of the Court):

Your Lordship is perfectly right.
He can't go on rhyming all night.
I suggest. . . .

(He is gagged, bound and dragged off to a Dungeon.)

- - - - -

You really need the illustrations to get the full effect.
11.7.2007 3:47pm
Though he's been accused of writing doggerel disguised as heroic couplets, John Taylor (1578-1653), also known as The Water Poet, did write a few verses relating to law and lawyers in his 1620 mock epic The Praise of Hemp-Seed.

Here are some excerpts:

For now how it to Paper doth conuert
My poore vnable Muse shall next insert.
And therefore noble and ignoble men
Iudge gently of the progresse of my pen,
In forma pauperis, poore men may sue,
And I in forme of paper speake to you.

There's many a Rascall that would rob, purloine,
Pick pockets, and cut purses, clip and coine,
Doe any thing, or all things that are ill,
If Hempseed did not curbe his wicked will.
'Tis not the breath or letter of the Law
That could keep Theeues rebellious wils in awe ;
For they (to saue their liues can vse perswasions.
Tricks, sleights, repriues, and many strange euasions.
But tricke, repriue, or sleight nor any thing
Could euer goe beyond a Hempen string.
This is Lawes period, this at first was made
To be sharpe Iustice executing blade.

All Lawyers from the high'st degree or marke,
Vnto the lowest Barrester or Clarke,
How could they doe if paper did not beare
The memory of what they speake or heare ?
And Iustice Clarkes could hardly make strong warrants,
For Theeues, or Baudes, or whores, or such like arrants,
But that in Paper 'tis their onely vse
To write, and right the Common-wealths abuse.
11.7.2007 8:13pm
Kim's song can be found at . He was a remarkable man.
11.7.2007 9:59pm
Kim's song can be found at He was a remarkable man.
11.7.2007 9:59pm