Mass Law Blog

You Can Judge a Man by the Poetry He Reads

by | Oct 30, 2007

According to the October 22, 2007 Time Magazine cover article on the Supreme Court (“Inside the Incredibly Shrinking Role of the Supreme Court, and Why John Roberts is O.K With That” (link)), every year, in January, Chief Justice John Roberts rereads the poem, “The Vanity of Human Wishes,” written by Samuel Johnson and first published in 1749. This is, the article says, a ritual John Roberts has followed since he was an undergrad at Harvard in the 1970s. The poem, according to Time, is “a devastating reflection on remorseless fate.” “Life protracted is protracted Woe,” quotes Time.

Here is the opening stanza of the full poem, and a link to the remainder of the poem, which is lengthy and, it almost goes without saying, challenging:

Remark each anxious Toil, each eager Strife,
And watch the busy Scenes of crouded Life;
Then say how Hope and Fear, Desire and Hate,
O’er spread with Snares the clouded Maze of Fate,
Where wav’ring Man, betray’d by vent’rous Pride,
To tread the dreary Paths without a Guide;
As treach’rous Phantoms in the Mist delude,
Shuns fancied Ills, or chases airy Good.
How rarely Reason guides the stubborn Choice,
Rules the bold Hand, or prompts the suppliant Voice,
How Nations sink, by darling Schemes oppres’d,
When Vengeance listens to the Fool’s Request.
Fate wings with ev’ry Wish th’ afflictive Dart,
Each Gift of Nature, and each Grace of Art,
With fatal Heat impetuous Courage glows,
With fatal Sweetness Elocution flows,
Impeachment stops the Speaker’s pow’rful Breath,
And restless Fire precipitates on Death. [continue ….]

I rather like this verse:

For Gold his Sword the Hireling Ruffian draws,
For Gold the hireling Judge distorts the Laws;
Wealth heap’d on Wealth, nor Truth nor Safety buys,
The Dangers gather as the Treasures rise.

And personally, I find it highly rejuvenating to reread Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, every New Year.