The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 480

“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.

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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: “your spun farm’s root still on that axis dwells,” where “still” could mean ambiguously “continuously” or “without movement,” the central point of a turning sphere being deemed not to rotate. The fact, however, is that “Earth’s axis varies”; there is no still center after all, so that the whole cone is not fixed, but “waversat the end.”

In this tightly argued meditation, the conclusion is built around three contradictions or paradoxes arising from this fiction. First, in putting “short stakes” around their property, owners are actually buying up rights to boundless volume: They are getting much more than they bargained for. Second, far from buying something fixed, in which to settle down, a property owner is “a nomad yet,” because the bought space is continuously moving. Finally, in buying something material, owners are actually buying into the mythical.

The image that Empson leaves in conclusion is that of a lighthouse whose beams penetrate the darkness of space. They form a cone, just like the shape of the property. The beam flashes “like Lucifer, through the firmament.” The figure of Lucifer, traditionally a name for Satan or the devil, thus forces the theological dimension of heaven and hell into the reader’s consciousness. Life is less certain, less solid, than humans suppose. They are inevitably involved with questions of ultimacy, of final judgment, and, however uncertainly and tentatively, they must acknowledge the depths and heights of which human life consists.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

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 communality of human rights “down where all owners meet.” In the end, too, “nomad” merges with the owner, since the space owned is so vast and is not actually fixed, but shifting. The stability that owning land brings is a delusion: People are still as much moving, restlessly even, whether they own property or not.

One strand of the imagery, as stated earlier, involves the traditional view of hell, earth, and heaven as three layers of existence. However, the cone image is more reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, where hell is depicted as a series of narrowing circles running from the surface of the earth down into its center. For Dante, only the worst villains are located at the lowest points, whereas Empson keeps the traditional image of the whole of hell being down there. The combination of the two schemes would seem impossible, but Empson’s geometrical logic keeps the conceit powerfully alive.

The other strand of imagery transforms the cone into a beam of light, first from a lighthouse, finally reduced to a candle. A certain ambivalence lies in this light image, since the lighthouse flashes are compared to Lucifer, who, while originally an angel of light (literally the name means “light-bearer”), has become prince of darkness. In the same way, one’s “central cone” is dark; one sees not the candle wavering but its shadow. What emerges from the poem is a sense of the darkness of space as well as the darkness of the earth’s center: Human life only flashes or gleams intermittently in this darkness.

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Themes