Poetry of the Bench and Bar: The Calf-Path or Precedents

Celebrating National Poetry Month at the Harris County Law Library. Book Cover: Justice and The Law: An Anthology of Legal Poetry and Verse

National Poetry Month begins today, and the Harris County Law Library is celebrating! Each Friday throughout the month of April, the Library will feature a poem or other legal verse here on Ex Libris Juris. With only five Fridays in the month, we can’t possibly represent the full range of creativity and expression of those lawyers, judges, and other “bards of the bar” who have bravely taken up the pen. Hopefully, the small sample of odes, elegies, ballads, haikus, limericks, and puns featured here will whet your appetite for more of this clever writing, examples of which are currently on display in the Library lobby.

Today’s poem, excerpted below, is “The Calf-Path.” This selection was written by Sam Walter Foss, a 19th century librarian and “newspaper poet” whose writing was a mixture of homespun wisdom and gentle moralizing. Written as a cautionary tale, “The Calf-Path” warns against the folly of blindly following an established rule or pattern. When applied to the law, this message takes on a new meaning, almost chiding those who follow legal precedent. Instead of treading the same worn calf-path, Foss, it seems, prefers “The Road Not Taken,” but without authority, custom, and precedent, the institution of law as we know it would collapse.

Within a system built on such strong tradition, the common law model seemingly leaves little room for creativity or innovation, but the armchair poets of the bench and bar would undoubtedly disagree. Examples of judicial humor, imagination, and eloquence are plentiful, and much has been written on the subject. Volume 1 (1926) of the Notre Dame Law Review featured an article called “Law and Poetry,” as did the Roger Williams University Law Review in 2006. Also in 2006, the Legal Studies Forum dedicated an entire issue to the subject, anthologizing the poetry of amateur writers trained in the discipline of law.

Judicial opinions written as poems have a rich tradition as well, along with the accompanying commentary on the appropriateness of using humor and creativity in this way. Widener University Commonwealth Law School published an article on “The Propriety of Poetry in Judicial Opinions” and, the International Journal for the Semiotics of Law addressed the debate in Poetic Justice: An Interpretation of Lawyers’ Reactions to Verse Judgments.”  The jury may be out on whether or not poetic judicial opinions befit the court’s dignified and serious reputation, but the Law Library staff hopes you will agree that, during National Poetry Month, legal poetry in all forms is worth celebrating!

Precedents or The Calf-Path (excerpt)

S.W. Foss

One day through the primeval wood
A calf walked home as good calves should;
But made a trail all bent askew,
A crooked trail as all calves do.

Since then three hundred years have fled,
And I infer the calf is dead.

But still he left behind his trail,
And thereby hangs my moral tale.

Published as “Precedents” in Justice and the Law: An Anthology of Legal Poetry and Verse (on exhibit)