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After 19 years, Souter and the Supreme Court part, with poetry

As the New Englander retires, he and Chief Justice John Roberts exchange warm letters of farewell – and a few verses of Robert Frost.

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Monday was the final day of the US Supreme Court's current term. It was also Justice David Souter's last day on the job after 19 years as a Supreme Court justice.

To mark the occasion, Chief Justice John Roberts prepared a letter to Justice Souter, signed by the eight other justices and former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor:

"We deeply value the times we have shared in judicial service," it says in part. "We understand your desire to trade white marble for White Mountains, and return to your land 'of easy wind and downy flake.'"

The reference was important and special. The poet Robert Frost speaks to life-long New Englanders like David Souter in ways other poets cannot.

The Chief Justice's phrase – as Souter well knew – was from Mr. Frost's famous work: "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."

The poem ends:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

Souter responded with a letter of his own – and more words from Frost.

"Your generous letter has touched me more than I can say, and I will only try to leave you with some sense of what our common service has mean to me," he writes.

"You quoted the Poet, and I will, too, in words that set out the ideal of the life engaged, "...where love and need are one..."

Souter explains: "That phrase accounts for the finest moments of my life on this court, as we have agreed or contended with each other over those things that matter to decent people in civil society."

Souter's quote comes from Frost's poem "Two Tramps In Mud Time."

It is the story of a man splitting wood and loving the work. He is confronted by unemployed men looking for work with the only skill they have and their axes.

"My right might be love but theirs was need.

And where the two exist in twain

Theirs was the better right – agreed,"

"But yield who will to their separation,

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 sake."

As farewells go, one could do worse than Robert Frost. But for a man who loves his New Hampshire, no better.


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