In a phone interview with Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens said that the study of English Literature —lyric poetry in particular— was the best preparation for the law. After all, he should know. When he retired on June 29, 2010, he was the third longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court. Long before reaching that milestone, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, he earned a B.A. in English at the University of Chicago. World War II ended his pursuit of a Master’s Degree there in 1941.
With a M.A. in English Lit from De Paul, I may have made a fine lawyer too. But somehow it is so cool to think that such a legal giant struggled with Keats and Shelley or John Donne and Andrew Marvell. Or had to explicate Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass”. No doubt this would train anyone, in Stevens’s words, “to understand written text and explain your thoughts in intelligible English”.
I wonder if Justice Stevens himself was ever inspired to write a lyric poem. He would not be the first man of the law to do so. Some even have become famous poets. Edgar Lee Masters, Wallace Stevens, Archibald MacLeish, to name but a few.
Fall has just begun. MacLeish wrote about it: “I speak this poem now with grave and level voice/ In praise of autumn of the far-horn-winding fall/ I praise the flower-barren fields the clouds the tall/ Unanswering branches where the wind makes sullen noise.
John Paul Stevens at age 91 is in the autumn of his years. I praise him for his monumental contribution to American jurisprudence. I praise him for his rhyme and reason. I praise this remarkable man of every season.
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