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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Although he wrote during a period of modernist and experimental verse, Empson’s poems remain traditional in stanza form and rhyme scheme. Here the quatrain form is used, each stanza being clearly completed by a period. The alternating rhymes are marked as clearly. The lines have a basic iambic pentameter, but the demands of Empson’s density of expression typically push extra spondees into the line. Thus there is no easy rhythmical reading of the verse: It has to be read in controlled speech rhythms that move toward prose, and one must follow the punctuation carefully to retain the sense of the argument.

Both diction and imagery are interesting in the poem. The diction at first appears to be solidly legal: “law,” “real estate,” “flat” (apartment), “citizen,” “owners,” and especially “your rights.” The use of “you” is typical of Empson; it challenges the reader much more directly than “we” or “they,” and with “you” he is forcing the readers’ rights on them. However, the materiality of this diction is constantly challenged—for example, by the oxymoron “the nomad citizen.” (One may wonder how a nomad can own a “high flat,” let alone overlook a piece of real estate.)

Although the “rights” mentioned here are apparently property rights rather than human rights, the two concepts merge “at earth’s centre,” where the separateness and exclusiveness of property rights are countered by the...

(The entire section is 492 words.)