Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

The Foreign Laws of God and Man

When I was a senior in high school in South Carolina, I had a particularly smart and talented English teacher–the same my junior and senior years. I remember that the summer before my senior year, this teacher required all of us to memorize 50 lines of poetry over the summer, to be recited on the first day of school. Of course, we all thought this was incredibly mean. Homework over the summer!

However, I have come to realize that that teacher actually gave me a great gift, as I still remember one of those poems, ‘XII’ by A.E. Housman. It still surprises me to this day as to *why* I chose to remember that poem, out of any other poem. Back then, I was a believer, raised Southern Baptist along with all my friends. Which makes my choice of this poem even more baffling to me.

‘XII’ by AE Housman

The laws of God, the laws of man,
He may keep that will and can;
Not I: let God and man decree
Laws for themselves and not for me;
And if my ways are not as theirs
Let them mind their own affairs.
Their deeds I judge and much condemn,
Yet when did I make laws for them?
Please yourselves, say I , and they
Need only look the other way.
But no, they will not; they must still
Wrest their neighbour to their will,
And make me dance as they desire
With jail and gallows and hell-fire.
And how am I to face the odds
Of man’s bedevilment and God’s?
I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I never made.
They will be master, right or wrong;
Though both are foolish, both are strong.
And since, my soul, we cannot fly
To Saturn nor to Mercury,
Keep we must, if keep we can,
These foreign laws of God and man.

Do ideas germinate? Do they lie dormant in the mind for a good long while, and come to fruition under the right circumstances? As I travel back to the South for the Science Blogging Conference in Raleigh-Durham, NC, I decided to take a few days afterward to visit some old high school friends in Greenville, SC. I am still quite close with some of them, and some I think will be surprised to see what I’ve become, a stranger there, in a world I never made and was not made to be a part of.

John Wilkins remembers a poem as well, and has turned this into a meme. Want to let me know what poem meant something to you?


  1. #1 teacherninja
    January 17, 2008

    You rock so hard, Shelley! Poetry quoting neroscientists are the bomb is all I can say.

  2. #2 Abby Normal
    January 17, 2008

    Beautiful poem Shelley. Here’s an excerpt from one of my favorites, Whitman’s Song Of Myself.

    Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
    You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
    You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
    You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
    You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.

  3. #3 Graciepoo
    January 17, 2008

    Thanks for the poetry recitation…in trade, may I share an excerpt from a favorite poem of mine…Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote “Renascence” when she was only 20. It’s very long. But here is a powerful excerpt:

    … sure, the sky is big, I said;
    Miles and miles above my head;
    So here upon my back I’ll lie
    And look my fill into the sky.
    And so I looked, and, after all,
    The sky was not so very tall.
    The sky, I said, must somewhere stop,
    And — sure enough! — I see the top!
    The sky, I thought, is not so grand;
    I ‘most could touch it with my hand!
    And reaching up my hand to try,
    I screamed to feel it touch the sky.
    I screamed, and — lo! — Infinity
    Came down and settled over me;
    Forced back my scream into my chest,
    Bent back my arm upon my breast,
    And, pressing of the Undefined
    The definition on my mind,
    Held up before my eyes a glass
    Through which my shrinking sight did pass
    Until it seemed I must behold
    Immensity made manifold;
    Whispered to me a word whose sound
    Deafened the air for worlds around,
    And brought unmuffled to my ears
    The gossiping of friendly spheres,
    The creaking of the tented sky,
    The ticking of Eternity. …

    The entire text is here:

  4. #4 Dirkh
    January 17, 2008

    “Please yourselves, say I , and they
    Need only look the other way.
    But no, they will not; they must still
    Wrest their neighbour to their will”

    William Burroughs used to say that there are two kinds of neighbors, the Snoops and the Johnsons. The Johnsons are live-and-let-live, don’t get up in your business, respect your privacy, tolerate your divergent lifestyle.

    And then there are the Snoops….

  5. #5 Nathan Myers
    January 17, 2008

    Does “both” seem to you to refer to God and Man, or to the laws of God and the laws of Man?

  6. #6 John P. Baumlin
    January 17, 2008

    A beautiful poem, Shelley. I used to read more poetry than I do now, but I loved those by Robinson Jeffers. Some of them were quite long, almost epic in length.

    The only poem I had ever memorized was one of his, called “The Beaks of Eagles”. To me it spoke of the mingled destinies of humans and animals, of basic human nature and how it can never be subsumed by culture and progress:

    An eagle’s nest on the head of an old redwood on one of the
    precipice-footed ridges
    Above Ventana Creek, that jagged country which nothing but a fallen
    meteor will ever plow: no horseman
    Will ever ride there, and no hunter cross this ridge but the winged ones.
    No one will steal the eggs from this fortress.
    The she-eagle is old, her mate was shot long ago, she is now mated
    With a son of hers.
    When lightning blasted her nest she built it again on the same tree, in
    the splinters of the thunder bolt.
    The she-eagle is older than I: she was here when the fires of eighty-five
    raged on these ridges,
    She was lately fledged and dared not hunt ahead of them, but ate scorched
    The world has changed in her time; humanity has multiplied,
    But not here; men’s hopes and thoughts and customs have changed, their
    powers are enlarged, their powers and their follies have become fantastic.
    The unstable animal never has been changed so rapidly.
    The motor and the plane and the great war have gone over him,
    And Lenin has lived and Jehovah died: while the mother-eagle
    Hunts her same hills, crying the same beautiful and lonely cry
    And is never tired: dreams the same dreams,
    And hears at night the rock-slides rattle and thunder in the
    Throats of these living mountains.
    It is good for man
    To try all changes, progress and corruption, powers, peace and anguish,
    not to go down the dinosaur’s way
    Until all his capacities have been explored: and it is good for him
    To know that his needs and nature are no more changed, in fact, in ten
    thousand years than the beaks of eagles.

  7. #7 Oldfart
    January 18, 2008

    Invictus, of course.
    Suitably masculine for an adolescent boy to memorize:

    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul

    In the fell clutch of circumstances
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of change
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the year
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll,
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

  8. #8 Tom Shi
    January 18, 2008

    Sundays too my father got up early
    and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
    then with cracked hands that ached
    from labor in the weekday weather made
    banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

    I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
    When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
    and slowly I would rise and dress,
    fearing the chronic angers of that house,

    Speaking indifferently to him,
    who had driven out the cold
    and polished my good shoes as well.
    What did I know, what did I know
    of love’s austere and lonely offices?

    — Robert Hayden

    In reading this poem for the first time I struck me for the first time how a parent’s love can be expressed in the thousands of little things they do for their children as a matter of course, things that we the children never even notices anymore.

  9. #9 Mike Gray
    January 19, 2008

    What a wonderful meme…

    We never had to memorize poety for school, which I think is a shame. I can still rattle off quite a bit of Robert Service’s “Ballad of Blasphemous Bill”, though:

    I took a contract to bury the body of Blasphemous Bill McKie

    Whenever, wherever, or whatsoever the manner of death he die

    Whether he die in light of day or under the peak-faced moon

    In cabin or dance-hall, camp or dive, muckluck or patent shoon

    On velvet tundra or virgin peak, by glacier, drift or draw

    In muskeg hollow or canyon gloom, by avalanche, fang or claw

    By battle, murder or sudden wealth, by pestilence, hooch or lead

    I swore on the Book to follow and look ’til I found my tombless dead.

    (It goes on, of course…)

  10. #10 Minnesotachuck
    January 20, 2008

    Let us go then, you and I
    When the evening is spread out against the sky
    Like a patient etherized upon a table
    Let us go through certain half deserted streets
    The muttering retreats of one night stands in cheap hotels
    And di da di da with oyster shells

    Those opening lines are all I can remember of T. S. Eliot’s “Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock”

    In re “Do ideas germinate? Do they lie dormant in the mind for a good long while, and come to fruition under the right circumstances?”

    I think some people have more innate curiosity than others. I vividly recall my first step down the slippery slope of disbelief. I was about 9 or 10 (circa 1950) when an ex-missionary from the Twin Cities was speaking at our church about his experiences in China. Part of his pitch included ridiculing various aspects of Chinese culture, including acupuncture and Confucius’ thought, and I recall thinking to my self: “how do we know for sure that we’re right and they’re wrong?” It took decades for that seed to fully flower.

  11. #11 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    January 20, 2008

    Abby –

    I had also posted a poem by Walt Whitman. O! Captain! My Captain!

    And thanks for starting this “meme,” Shelley.

  12. #12 Dave Briggs
    January 22, 2008

    You rock so hard, Shelley! Poetry quoting neroscientists are the bomb is all I can say.

    Posted by: teacherninja | January 17, 2008 7:28 AM

    If you could have charted your brain waves while you quoted this it probably would have been a beautiful thing too! At least to a neuroscientist, for sure! LOL!
    Dave Briggs :~)

  13. #13 darkman
    January 22, 2008

    first poem i memorized in full:

    is dandy
    but liquor
    is quicker.

    thank you ogden nash.

  14. #14 Meredith M. Clancy
    January 26, 2008

    Definitely kudos to the T.S. Eliot, a true favorite, and a good one to keep memorized.

    The lines that stick in my mind are three stanzas from a living poet, Li-Young Lee in his poem “The City in Which I Love You.”

    Stack in me the unaccountable fire
    bring on me the iron leaf, but tenderly.
    Folded one hundred times
    and creased, I’ll not crack.
    Threshed to excellence, I’ll achieve you.


    If I feel the night
    move to disclosures or crescendos,
    it’s only because I’m famished
    for meaning; the night
    merely dissolves.

    And your otherness is perfect as my death.
    Your otherness exhausts me,
    like looking suddenly up from here
    to impossible stars fading.
    Everything is punished by your absence.

    Full text here:

    Great post!

  15. #15 octopod
    January 28, 2008

    I think a lot of people who don’t like poetry just haven’t had enough real human experiences. I sure like it a lot better than I did when I was young.

    All I have memorized (other than Ogden Nash) is Octavio Paz! Oh well, it’s good stuff. Here’s “Madrugada”:

    Rápidas manos frías
    retiran una a una
    las vendas de la sombra
    Abro los ojos
    estoy vivo
    en el centro
    de una herida todavía fresca

    (Quick cold hands
    draw back one by one
    the curtains of shadow
    I open my eyes
    I am alive
    in the center
    of a wound which is always fresh)

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