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For Souter’s departure today, much reciting of poetry, all of it written by Robert Frost. In his farewell letter to his colleagues, Souter describes the joy of his work at the court as he and his fellow justices contended over “those things that matter to decent people in civil society.”

He quotes from Frost’s poem Two Tramps in Mud Time — a poem, he writes, that expresses “the ideal of the life engaged, ‘…where love and need are one…’ … That phrase accounts for the finest moments of my life on this court…”

The poem describes the poet and his love of chopping wood. He both needs the wood for his fires, and loves in itself the act of chopping the wood:

The weight of an ax-head poised aloft,
The grip of earth on outspread feet,
The life of muscles rocking soft
And smooth and moist in vernal heat.

These are goods in themselves, the ideal here that of the human body deeply engaged, in zenlike self-transcendence, in an act. But beyond the engrossing physical pleasure of this natural movement lies something else:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.

The only really meaningful act has this double aspect of vocation — a job that must be done to satisfy a human need — and avocation — a playful gratuitous act of sheer joy. Iris Murdoch calls art “close dangerous play with unconscious forces.” It’s the same idea: Souter is evoking the serious play — often, indeed, at the court, with dangerous forces — that work as a justice has represented for him. Play for mortal stakes.

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