The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Legal Fiction” is a closely argued sixteen-line poem of four quatrains. A legal fiction is any point in law which is deemed to be true even though in reality it either is a nonsensical point or has no existence. The legal fiction involved here is one of property ownership. The poem explains that in buying any piece of land, the space below and above it are included in the sale, being deemed to be part of the property. That is to say, property has a three-dimensional existence rather than a two-dimensional one.

William Empson links this fiction to a cosmic and mythic view of space: the space below extends logically to the center of the earth, where every radius (“long spikes”) must necessarily meet. “Your rights reach down where all owners meet.” Mythically, this is where hell has been placed, at least in the traditional “three-decker” universe. Similarly, the space above extends logically ad infinitum. Mythically again, this is where heaven is situated. From a mythical viewpoint, then, the legal fiction of property ownership states that “you own land in Heaven and Hell.”

Empson then extends this fictional concept of property ownership in two ways. First, he defines the geometrical shape of this legal configuration as a cone or “growing sector,” with its point at the earth’s center and the top “growing” as space extends outward (or upward). Second, he considers the earth’s rotation about its axis:...

(The entire section is 480 words.)