Law and Literature (Part 1)

In A Portrait of Lincoln’s Inn it is perceptively noted by the author (as well as by Anthony Trollope) that the “lawyer’s parlour-game is to find anachronisms and anomalies in how the law is treated in literature.” (p.82) The nature of my legal education at Warwick has also prompted me to indulge in such musings and to consider the intricate mytho-historical relationship between law and literature. So, as part of my ‘ramblings’ on this blog, I hope I will be excused if I occasionally meander towards sharing my views on law and literature.

While lawyers are usually portrayed as hard-nosed, cut-throat individuals, devoid of either compassion or ideals, the opposite is often true. This is especially true for Barristers or those who seek to be Barristers. Behind their inscrutable, professional façade, many a Barrister shelters their inner Bohemian: prone to bouts of eccentricity and profoundly idealistic. Why else would someone who is academically and professionally accomplished, eschew a more lucrative and (relatively) secure ‘job’ in a consultancy or solicitor’s firm, for the uncertainty of independent, self-employed practice? Few nowadays repeat the old, noble adages of the past; expressions of ‘ensuring justice’ or avoiding ‘the taint of money’ but many still get a thrill, an adrenaline rush from living brief to brief, like an actor lives from script to script. More than any other profession, I feel the vocation of a Barrister is most similar to that of an actor/actress as their careers are shaped and reputations forged by each brief/script they take on. They are expected to thrive under the limelight and any misstep, in the courtroom or on the stage, is potentially ruinous. I suppose that is one of the reasons why Barristers have an affinity to the literary, the theatrical and the dramatic. Flaubert might have expressed it best in Madame Bovary (1857): “There isn’t a bourgeois alive who in the ferment of his youth, if only for a day or for a minute, hasn’t thought himself capable of boundless passions and noble exploits. The sorriest little woman-chaser has dreamed of Oriental queens; in a corner of every notary’s heart lie the moldy remains of a poet.” Just such an emotion is conveyed in the following poem by J. Williams, where he lyrically laments the divergence of verse and the law and wistfully contemplates the ‘bold’ decision of some to side with the former.

Law and Poetry

In days of old did law and rime
A common pathway follow,
For Themis in the mythic time
Was sister of Apollo.
The Hindu statutes tripped in feet
As daintily as Dryads,
And law in Wales to be complete
Was versified in triads.
The wise Alfonso of Castile
Composed his code in metre
Thereby to make its flavour feel
A little bit the sweeter.
But law and rime were found to be
A trifle inconsistent,
And now in statutes poetry
Is wholly non-existent.[28]
Still here and there some advocate
Before his fellows know it
Has had bestowed on him by fate
The laurel of the poet.
Let him who has been honoured so,
In truth a rara avis,
Find precedents in Cicero
And our Chief Justice Davis;
And more than all in Cino; he,
So plaintive a narrator
Of fair Selvaggia’s cruelty,
Won fame as a glossator.
Let him remember Thomas More
And Scott and Alciatus,
And Grotius with an ample store
Of most divine afflatus.[29]
But let him, if his bread and cheese
Depend on his profession,
Bethink him that the art of these
Was not their sole possession.
The stream that flows from Helicon
Is scarcely a Pactolus,
A richer prize is theirs who con
Dull treatises on dolus.
‘Tis well that some bold spirits dare
To cut themselves asunder
From bonds of law like old Molière,
While lawyers gaze in wonder.
The world had been a poorer place
Had Goethe lived by pleading
Or Tasso won a hopeless case
With Ariosto leading.

J. Williams, Briefless Ballads and Legal Lyrics (Second Series) (Adam and Charles Black: London, 1895) Available online at: <>

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