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Some Poetry by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

In Arts & Letters, Creative Writing, Humanities, Law, Law-and-Literature, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Poetry, Writing on May 2, 2012 at 8:00 am

Allen Mendenhall

The following lines come from two dissents by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.  I have rendered the lines in poetic form to suggest that Holmes’s writing is poetic, perhaps even inspired by Modern American poets such as William Carlos Williams.

Black & White Taxi & Transfer Co. v. Brown & Yellow Taxi & Transfer Co.[1]

A Poem[2] (1928)

It is very hard to resist the impression

that there is one august corpus

to understand which clearly is the only task

of any Court concerned.

If there were such a transcendental body of law

outside of any particular State

but obligatory within it unless and until changed by statute,

the Courts of the United States might be right in using

their independent judgment

as to what it was.

But there is no such body of law.

The fallacy and illusion that I think exist

consist in supposing that there is this outside thing to be found.

Law is a word used with different meanings,

but law in the sense in which courts speak of it today

does not exist

without some definite authority

behind it.


Gitlow v. New York[3]

A Poem[4] (1925)

Every idea

is an incitement.

It offers itself for belief

and if believed

it is acted on

unless some other belief

outweighs it

or some failure of energy

stifles the movement

at its birth.

The only difference

between the expression

of an opinion and an incitement

in the narrower sense

is the speaker’s enthusiasm

for the result.

Eloquence may set fire

to reason.

But whatever may be thought

of the redundant discourse

before us

it had no chance of starting

a present conflagration.



[1] See 276 U.S. 518 (1928) (Holmes, dissenting).

[2] My addition.

[3] See 268 U.S. 652 (1925) (Holmes, dissenting).

[4] My addition.


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