Now this is the song of a prison—a song of a gaol or jug—
A ballad of quod or of chokey, the ultimate home of the mug.
The yard where the Foolish are drafted; Hell’s school where the harmless are taught;
For the big beast never is captured and the great thief never is caught.
A song of the trollop’s victim, and the dealer in doubtful eggs,
And a song of the man who was ruined by the lie with a thousand legs.
A song of suspected persons and rouge-and-vagabond pals,
And of persons beyond suspicion—the habitual criminals.
’Tis a song of the weary warders, whom prisoners call “the screws”—
A class of men who I fancy would cleave to the “Evening News.”
They look after their treasures sadly. By the screw of their keys they are known,
And they screw them many times daily before they draw their own.
It is written on paper pilfered from the prison printery,
With a stolen stump of a pencil that a felon smuggled for me.
And he’d have got twenty-four hours in the cells if he had been caught,
With bread to eat and water to drink and plenty of food for thought.
And I paid in chews of tobacco from one who is in for life;
But he is a decent fellow—he only murdered his wife.
(He is cherub-like, jolly, good-natured, and frank as the skies above,
And his Christian name is Joseph, and his other, ye gods! is Love!)
The Governor knows, and the Deputy, and all of the warders know,
Once a week, and on Sunday, we sit in a sinful row,
And bargain for chews of tobacco under the cover of prayer—
And the harmless Anglican chaplain is the only innocent there.
Staircase and doors of iron, no sign of a plank or brick,
Ceilings and floors of sandstone, and the cell walls two feet thick;
Cell like a large-sized coffin, or a small-sized tomb, and white,
And it strikes a chill to the backbone on the warmest summer night.
For fifteen hours they leave you to brood in the gloom and cold
On the cheats that you should have cheated, and the lies that you should have told;
On the money that would release you, you lent to many a friend,
And the many a generous action you suffered for in the end.
Grey daylight follows softly the heartless electric light
That printed the bars of the window on the wall of the cell all night
The darkness has vanished “hushing” when there is nothing to hush—
And I think of the old grey daylight on the teamster’s camp in the bush.
I think of the low bark homestead, the yard and the sinister bail,
And the shed in a hole in the gully—a pigsty compared with gaol;
The drought and the rows and the nagging; the hill where a flat grave is—
The gaol of my boyhood as dreadful and barren and grey as this.
We rise at six when the bell rings, and roll up our blankets neat,
Then we pace the cell till seven, brain-dulled, and with leaden feet.
Bolts clank, and the iron doors open, light floods from an iron-barred arch—
And we start with a start galvanic at the passionless, “Left—Quick march!”
Down the crooked and winding staircase in the great wrong-angular well,
Like the crooked stairs that of late years we have stumbled down to Hell;
We empty the tubs and muster, with the prison slouch and tread,
And we take to the cells our breakfast of hominy and of bread.
The church in its squat round tower, with Christ in His thorny wreath—
The reception house is below it, so the gates of Hell are beneath,
Where sinners are clad and numbered, when hope for a while has
And above us the gilded rooster that crowed when Peter lied.
What avail is the prayer of the abbess? Or the raving of Cock-eyed Liz?
The holy hermit in his cell, or the Holy Terror in his?
Brothers and sisters of Heaven, seen through the bars in a wall,
As we see the uncaught sinners—and God have mercy on all.
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"The Song of a Prison" Poetry.net. STANDS4 LLC, 2020. Web. 28 May 2020. <https://www.poetry.net/poem/18099/the-song-of-a-prison>.