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The Law Locks Up the Man or Woman -- Anonymous

       
(Poem #1120) The Law Locks Up the Man or Woman
 The law locks up the man or woman
 Who steals the goose from off the common;
 But lets the greater felon loose
 Who steals the common from the goose.
-- Anonymous
I've always thought of this one as a nursery rhyme that didn't quite make
it. More fairly, it's balanced somewhere between traditional nursery rhymes
like 'The Lion and the Unicorn' and biting social commentary like
Cleghorn's "The Golf Links" [Poem #216], with a dash of the proverb thrown
in.

The reason today's poem never made it as a nursery rhyme is fairly obvious -
it's too explicit. Traditional 'hidden meaning' nursery rhymes were slyly
humorous, veiling their ridicule in allusion. Of course, at the time of
writing, the allusion would have been totally transparent, and ensured that
the rhyme got passed around with a wink and a nudge in taverns and on street
corners. Later generations would see it merely as an amusing children's
poem, but there again it would get handed down from parent to child, until
it was ubiquitous.

On the other hand, today's poem's meaning is clear in general terms. It's
even relevant enough that people can still relate to it. However, the
Inclosure Act to which it refers was passed hundreds of years ago; the poem
is no longer current, and loses something thereby. And, lacking the enforced
whimsy of the more allusive nursery rhymes, it was never seen as a
children's poem - rather than being passed down as attractive nonsense when
it lost its topicality, it faded into a sort of semiobscurity.

One aspect of the nursery rhyme it *has* shared is alteration via the folk
process. There are several versions floating around, from minor variants
like the substitution of 'villain' for 'felon', to the following from the
Oxford Dictionary of Quotations:

  "The fault is great in man or woman
   Who steals a goose from off a common:
   But what can plead that man's excuse
   Who steals a common from a goose?"

           --The Tickler Magazine, 1 Feb. 1821.

Like Swift's poem on lesser fleas, though, I am fairly confident that the
folk process has improved the original - poems that are handed down orally
tend to undergo a rather ruthless evolutionary winnowing. If they're not
good enough, they don't get repeated, and if a mutated form is more quotable
or pleasing, it has a very good chance of replacing the original.

martin

Links:
 An alt.quotations thread on the poem:

http://groups.google.com/groups?threadm=dpbsmith-B90F%40news.cis.dfn.de

 The Inclosure Act, in context
  [broken link] http://www.coprolite.care4free.net/page70.html
  http://www.soilandhealth.org/01aglibrary/010136ernle/010136ch7.htm

59 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

lists said...

MD> 'The Law Locks Up the Man or Woman'

This is quoted in the introduction to Edward Potts Cheyney's
_Social and Industrial History of England_ [1901].

A similar idea was expressed by Schiller:

It is criminal to steal a purse,
daring to steal a fortune,
a mark of greatness to steal a crown.
The blame diminishes as the guilt increases.

Shakib

Cats3Quaker said...

yet still they steal our common wealth
by devious act and greater stealth

Cats3Quaker said...

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose. (Anon.)

Common Wealth

The law protected not the goose,
When it let the villains loose,
Where the law was so passive,
So many villains now here live.

Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair,
Who protected common snatcher,
Did not for the common care,
Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher.

Under the care of this pair,
Were made the greatest common-raids.
Theft that left common bereft,
Were made most in the last two decades.

So I find it no surprise: common crime is on the rise,
For they have simply drawn a line, to arbitrarily define,
What is crime and what is not, though in truth it's 'tommyrot'.
The thieving of the bureaucracy, is stealing still from you and me.

The thieving of the bureaucrat, to fund the 'wanabe' fat cat,
With PFI, creates common debt, for children who're unborn as yet.
I'm sorry that I use derision, to prompt eye to open and envision
The slow return to slavery that will be this pair's legacy.

It is clear you see for such low-cunning fraud-wit,
To go thieving off-balance-sheet and escape audit,
For, although we always inherited National Debt,
We also inherited assets: real wealth to offset.

The equivalent of this in the PFI boom,
Is that you inherit a contract to consume.
And whether you find that you want this or not,
Already this share of your wealth they have got.

Their contracts require they meet the 'rat's ends,
Needs they ignore of those who the brass spends.
Isn't it strange, these two: right-wing: extremist,
Bequeath to a free state such a fate: Stalinist?

First Published on web site: gothicx.co.uk

David J. Weston said...

A fellow in Port Patrick has added the following:

And with multinationals on the loose,
They steal people, commons, and the goose.

David J. Weston,
Stranraer,
Scotland.

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Anonymous said...

"The law locks up both man and woman
who steals the goose from off the common
but lets the greater felon loose
who steals the common from the goose"
- Oliver Goldsmith's Deserted Village
(1700)
So you see, the quote above does have an author.

John Cowan said...

Anonymous, the text of Deserted Village is online in several places. It not only doesn't contain those lines, it couldn't, because its meter is completely different.

However, it does contain this famous passage:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay:
Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country's pride,
When once destroyed can never be supplied.

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