“The Chair of Death”


Convicted of murder in Illinois in 1934, Walter Dittman composed a poem to serve as his last words:

I see it grimly waiting patiently for me,
To send me as its victim into eternity.
Not a whit or bit of mercy does it show for man or beast.
Its only song is, “Die, you dog, for your slide to hell is greased.”

It’s not the thought that I’m to die that makes me want to pray.
It’s because I’ll not be there, my own, to wipe your tears away.
God knows, and so do you, that I never slew nor stole,
And though the whole world’s turned against me,
He’ll have mercy on my soul.


An innocent maiden of Gloucester
Fell in love with a coucester named Foucester;
She met him in Leicester,
Where he merely careicester,
Then the hard-headed coucester just loucester.

There was a young lady of Worcester
Who urcest to crow like a rorcester;
She urcest to climb
Two trees at a time,
But her sircester urcest to borcester.

“There’s a train at 4.04,” said Miss Jenny.
“Four tickets I’ll take. Have you any?”
Said the man at the door,
“Not four for 4.04,
For four for 4.04 are too many.”

A certain young fellow named Beebee
Wished to wed with a lady named Phoebe.
But said he, “I must see
What the clerical fee
Be before Phoebe be Phoebe Beebee.”

“Bifocal Trouble”


The wise optician smiled and said:
“The upper half to look ahead;
The lower half whereby to read;
And thus one pair is all you need.
Have patience; in a week or two
Bifocals will not trouble you.”

I muttered as I left the shop:
“For distance vision use the top;
The bottom lenses you will need
When you sit down to write or read.”
I raised my right foot high in air
To mount a step which wasn’t there.

The level street became a hill;
I looked at people standing still,
And, since I used the lower glass,
There seemed no room for me to pass.
I turned a corner of the street
And knocked a woman from her feet.

And all that day throughout the town
My eyes kept looking up and down,
“That fellow’s drunk,” I heard men say
As I went reeling down the way.
With those bifocals on my face
The town became a crazy place.

Bifocal troubles curious are:
The far seems near, the near seems far.
You step from heights that ne’er exist,
And jostle folks you should have missed;
Until man grows bifocal-wise
He finds he can’t believe his eyes.

— Edgar Guest


In 1904, the Court of Claims rendered a judgment in the case of Harvey Steel Company v. United States. Writing for four of the five judges, Chief Justice Nott composed the majority opinion, and Justice Wright wrote a dissent. Writing in The Green Bag, poet Lincoln B. Smith dedicated these lines to Wright:

That Wright is Wright and Nott is Nott
Logicians must concede.
That Nott is right and Wright is not
Four judges have decreed.

That Nott is right, and Wright is not,
We all must now agree;
Then Nott is right and Wright is Nott–
The same thing, to a t.

If Nott is Nott and Wright is Nott,
It comes without a wrench
That we have not, if not two Notts,
Five judges on the bench.

If only four, as shown before,
And three agree with Nott,
The judgment is unanimous,
And Wright’s dissent is naught.

The knot is not, is Nott not Nott?
But is Wright right, or Nott?
Is Nott not right? What right has Wright
To write that Nott is not?

He concluded, “Do I do right to write to Wright / This most unrighteous rot?”

Poetic Justice

In reversing an opinion in 1975, Georgia appeals court judge Randall Evans Jr. wrote his decision in verse:

The D.A. was ready
His case was red-hot.
Defendant was present,
His witness was not.

He prayed one day’s delay
From his honor the judge.
But his plea was not granted
The Court would not budge.

So the jury was empaneled
All twelve good and true
But without his main witness
What could the twelve do?

The jury went out
To consider his case
And then they returned
The defendant to face.

“What verdict, Mr. Foreman?”
The learned judge inquired.
“Guilty, your honor.”
On Brown’s face — no smile.

“Stand up,” said the judge,
Then quickly announced,
“Seven years at hard labor”
Thus his sentence pronounced.

“This trial was not fair,”
The defendant then sobbed.
“With my main witness absent
I’ve simply been robbed.”

“I want a new trial —
State has not fairly won.”
“New trial denied,”
Said Judge Dunbar Harrison.

“If you still say I’m wrong,”
The able judge did then say
“Why not appeal to Atlanta?
Let those Appeals Judges earn part of their pay.”

“I will appeal, sir” —
Which he proceeded to do —
“They can’t treat me worse
Than I’ve been treated by you.”

So the case has reached us —
And now we must decide
Was the guilty verdict legal —
Or should we set it aside?

Justice and fairness
Must prevail at all times;
This is ably discussed
In a case without rhyme.

The law of this State
Does guard every right
Of those charged with crime,
Fairness always in sight.

To continue civil cases
The judge holds all aces.
But it’s a different ball game
In criminal cases.

Was one day’s delay
Too much to expect?
Could the State refuse it
With all due respect?

Did Justice applaud
Or shed bitter tears
When this news from Savannah
First fell on her ears?

We’ve considered this case
Through the night — through the day.
As Judge Harrison said,
“We must earn our poor pay.”

This case was once tried —
But should now be rehearsed
And tried one more time.
This case is reversed!

Evans explained in a footnote: “This opinion is placed in rhyme because approximately one year ago, in Savannah at a very convivial celebration, the distinguished Judge Dunbar Harrison, Senior Judge of Chatham Superior Courts, arose and addressed those assembled, and demanded that if Judge Randall Evans Jr. ever again was so presumptuous as to reverse one of his decisions, that the opinion be written in poetry. I readily admit I am unable to comply, because I am not a poet, and the language used, at best, is mere doggerel. I have done my best, but my limited ability just did not permit the writing of a great poem. It was no easy task to write the opinion in rhyme.”

Upscale Housing


Behold the Mansion reared by daedal Jack.

See the malt stored in many a plethoric sack,
In the proud cirque of Ivan’s bivouac.

Mark how the Rat’s felonious fangs invade
The golden stores in John’s pavilion laid.

Anon with velvet foot and Tarquin strides,
Subtle Grimalkin to his quarry glides,
Grimalkin grim, that slew the fierce rodent
Whose tooth, insidious, Johann’s sackcloth rent!

Lo! now the deep-mouthed canine foe’s assault,
That vexed the avenger of the stolen malt,
Stored in the hallowed precincts of that hall
That rose complete at Jack’s creative call.

Here stalks the impetuous Cow with crumpled horn,
Whereon the exacerbating hound was torn,
Who bayed the feline slaughter-beast that slew
The Rat predaceous whose keen fangs ran through
The textile fibers that involved the grain,
Which lay in Han’s inviolate domain.

Here walks forlorn the Damsel crowned with rue,
Lactiferous spoils from vaccine dugs who drew,
Of that corniculate beast whose tortuous horn
Tossed to the clouds, in fierce vindictive scorn,
The harrowing hound whose braggart bark and stir
Arched the lithe spine and reared the indignant fur
Of Puss that with verminicidal claw
Struck the weird rat, in whose insatiate maw
Lay reeking malt that erst in Juan’s courts we saw.

Robed in senescent garb, that seems in sooth
Too long a prey to Chronos’ iron tooth,
Behold the man whose amorous lips incline,
Full with young Eros’ osculative sign,
To the lorn maiden whose lact-albic hands
Drew albulactic wealth from lacteal glands
Of that immortal bovine, by whose horn
Distort, to realm ethereal was borne
The beast Catulean, vexer of that sly
Ulysses quadrupedal, who made die
The old mordaceous Rat that dared devour
Antecedaneous Ale in John’s domestic bower.

Lo here! with hirsute honors doffed, succinct
Of saponaceous locks: the Priest who linked
In Hymen’s golden bands the torn unthrift,
Whose means exiguous stared from many a rift,
Even as he kissed the virgin all forlorn,
Who milked the Cow with implicated horn,
Who in fine wrath the canine torturer skied,
That dared to vex the insidious muricide,
Who let auroral effluence thro’ the pelt
Of the sly Rat that robbed the place Jack built.

The loud cantankerous Shanghae comes at last,
Whose shouts arouse the shorn ecclesiast,
Who sealed the vows of Hymen’s sacrament
To him who, robed in garments indigent,
Inosculates the damsel lachrymose,
The emulgator of that horned brute morose,
That tossed the dog that worried the cat, that kilt
The rat that ate the malt that lay in the house that Jack built.

— “Canadian paper,” quoted in Notes and Queries, Dec. 20, 1862

Brief Lives


Mr. H.G. Wells
Was composed of cells.
He thought the human race
Was a perfect disgrace.

So wrote Edmund Clerihew Bentley in demonstrating the whimsical biographical verse that he invented. “I never heard who started the practice of referring to this literary form — if that is the word — as a Clerihew,” he wrote, “but it began early, and the name stuck.”

That’s as it should be: In a 1981 collection, Gavin Ewart wrote, “Nobody much except Bentley has ever written really good clerihews.” Samples:

“The moustache of Adolf Hitler
Could hardly be littler,”
Was the thought that kept recurring
To Field-Marshal Goering.

It is curious that Handel
Should always have used a candle.
Men of his stamp
Generally use a lamp.

Although Machiavelli
Was extremely fond of jelly,
He stuck religiously to mince
While he was writing The Prince.

The meaning of the poet Gay
Was always as clear as day,
While that of the poet Blake
Was often practically opaque.

A man in the position
Of the emperor Domitian
Ought to have thought twice
About being a Monster of Vice.

Edgar Allan Poe
Was passionately fond of roe.
He always like to chew some
When writing anything gruesome.

The great Duke of Wellington
Reduced himself to a skellington.
He reached seven stone two,
And then — Waterloo!

More. Yet more. Still more.

“Poem Without an E”

John Knox was a man of wondrous might,
And his words ran high and shrill,
For bold and stout was his spirit bright,
And strong was his stalwart will.

Kings sought in vain his mind to chain,
And that giant brain to control,
But naught on plain or stormy main
Could daunt that mighty soul.

John would sit and sigh till morning cold
Its shining lamps put out,
For thoughts untold on his mind lay hold,
And brought but pain and doubt.

But light at last on his soul was cast,
Away sank pain and sorrow,
His soul is gay, in a fair to-day,
And looks for a bright to-morrow.

— “Unidentified,” in Current Opinion, July 1888

“In the Sultan’s Garden (Pantoum)”

She oped the portal of the palace,
She stole into the garden’s gloom;
From every spotless snowy chalice
The lilies breathed a sweet perfume.

She stole into the garden’s gloom,
She thought that no one would discover;
The lilies breathed a sweet perfume,
She swiftly ran to meet her lover.

She thought that no one would discover,
But footsteps followed, ever near:
She swiftly ran to meet her lover
Beside the fountain crystal clear.

But footsteps followed ever near;
Ah, who is that she sees before her
Beside the fountain crystal clear?
‘T is not her hazel-eyed adorer.

Ah, who is that she sees before her,
His hand upon his scimitar?
‘T is not her hazel-eyed adorer,
It is her lord of Candahar!

His hand upon his scimitar–
Alas, what brought such dread disaster!
It is her lord of Candahar,
The fierce Sultan, her lord and master.

Alas, what brought such dread disaster!
“Your pretty lover’s dead!” he cries–
The fierce Sultan, her lord and master–
“‘Neath yonder tree his body lies.”

“Your pretty lover’s dead!” he cries–
(A sudden, ringing voice behind him);
“‘Neath yonder tree his body lies–”
“Die, lying dog! go thou and find him!”

A sudden, ringing voice behind him,
A deadly blow, a moan of hate,
“Die, lying dog! go thou and find him!
Come, love, our steeds are at the gate!”

A deadly blow, a moan of hate,
His blood ran red as wine in chalice;
“Come, love, our steeds are at the gate!”
She oped the portal of the palace.

— Clinton Scollard, Pictures in Song, 1884

Second Thoughts


Florida bankruptcy judge A. Jay Cristol had moved to dismiss a case in 1986 when he reconsidered, inspired by “a little old ebony bird.” He filed this explanation:

Once upon a midnight dreary,
While I pondered weak and weary
Over many quaint and curious files of chapter seven lore
While I nodded nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door,
“‘Tis some debtor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”

Ah distinctly I recall, it was in the early fall
And the file still was small
The Code provided I could use it
If someone tried to substantially abuse it
No party asked that it be heard.
“Sua sponte” whispered a small black bird.
The bird himself, my only maven,
Strongly looked to be a raven.

Upon the words the bird had uttered
I gazed at all the files cluttered
“Sua sponte,” I recall, had no meaning; none at all.
And the cluttered files sprawl, drove a thought into my brain.
Eagerly I wished the morrow–vainly I had sought to borrow
From BAFJA, surcease of sorrow–and an order quick and plain
That this case would not remain as a source of further pain.
The procedure, it seemed plain.

As the case grew older, I perceived I must be bolder.
And must sua sponte act, to determine every fact,
If primarily consumer debts, are faced,
Perhaps this case is wrongly placed.
This is a thought that I must face, perhaps I should dismiss this case.
I moved sua sponte to dismiss it for I knew I would not miss it.
The Code said I could, I knew it.
But not exactly how to do it, or perhaps some day I’d rue it.

I leaped up and struck my gavel.
For the mystery to unravel
Could I? Should I? Sua sponte, grant my motion to dismiss?
While it seemed the thing to do, suddenly I thought of this.

Looking, looking towards the future and to what there was to see
If my motion, it was granted and an appeal came to be,
Who would be the appellee? Surely, it would not be me.
Who would file, but pray tell me, a learned brief for the appellee

The District Judge would not do so
At least this much I do know.
Tell me raven, how to go.

As I with the ruling wrestled
In the statute I saw nestled
A presumption with a flavor clearly in the debtor’s favor.

No evidence had I taken
Sua sponte appeared foresaken.
Now my motion caused me terror
A dismissal would be error.

Upon consideration of § 707(b), in anguish, loud I cried
The court’s sua sponte motion to dismiss under § 707(b) is denied.

(In re Love, 61 B.R. 558 (Bankr. 1986))