John Godfrey Saxe first set out to become a successful lawyer. Then he turned his attention to politics. But he found true and lasting success as a poet, best known for his spritely, humorous ruminations about current events and the ways of the world.
Born in Highgate, Vt., in 1816, Saxe came from an old Vermont family. He attended Middlebury College and was admitted to the bar to practice law in 1843. He launched his law practice rather unsuccessfully in Franklin County, Vermont.
John Godfrey Saxe, Poet
That experience probably inspired his poem, “The Briefless Barrister,” which tells the humorous tale of a lawyer who can’t find any work.
‘Tis not that I’m wanting in law,
Or lack an intelligent face,
That others have cases to plead,
While I have to plead for a case.
The sad lawyer proceeds to collapse into a hole and drown. Or, as the jury conducting an inquest into his death concludes:
The jury decided at length,
After solemnly weighing the matter,
That the lawyer was drownded, because
He could not keep his head above water!
Saxe did become state attorney general in 1856, and he edited the Burlington Sentinel for several years in the 1850s. But unsuccessful runs for governor in 1859 and 1860 left him with little remaining appetite for politics. He is credited with coining the expression: “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.”
While his political ambitions were thwarted, his poems were gaining a large audience, in magazines such as Harpers and the Atlantic. Readers lapped up his clever, observational poetry that offered commentary on the customs of the day.
One of his more famous efforts explained the appeal of the fashionable summer resort, Saratoga Springs. From the Ballad of Saratoga:
Pray, what do they do at the Springs?”
The question is easy to ask;
But to answer it fully, my dear,
Were rather a serious task.
And yet, in a bantering way,
As the magpie or mocking-bird sings,
I ‘ll venture a bit of a song
To tell what they do at the Springs
Now they stroll in the beautiful walks,
Or loll in the shade of the trees;
Where many a whisper is heard
That never is told by the breeze;
And hands are commingled with hands,
Regardless of conjugal rings;
And they flirt, and they flirt, and they flirt,—
And that’s what they do at the Springs!
The Melting Pot
Another of his more popular works was a lyrical, observational study of the melting pot on the American railways, Rhyme of the Rail.
Men of different “stations”
In the eye of Fame
Here are very quickly
Coming to the same.
High and lowly people,
Birds of every feather,
On a common level.
And he told the funny story of a census taker interviewing a German-American woman. She answers his questions about whether she has a husband or how many children she has by saying “nein,” leading to predictable confusion.
His poetry also could be serious and somber, such as a ballad he wrote about the sad death of the man who ran the sawmill on his father’s property. Probably Saxe’s most notable achievement as a poet was introducing western audiences to the fable of The Blind Men and The Elephant.
Saxe eventually moved to New York State, where a series of misfortunes befell him. Several of his children died of tuberculosis and his wife died of a brain hemorrhage. He himself suffered a head injury in a rail accident from which he never fully recovered.
In total, he published nine volumes of his poetry, collected and republished many times. He died in 1887 in Albany, N.Y.
This story last updated in 2022.