Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, THE SINGER IN THE PRISON, by WALT WHITMAN



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THE SINGER IN THE PRISON, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: O sight of pity, shame and dole!
Last Line: O fearful thought -- a convict soul.
Subject(s): Prisons & Prisoners; Convicts


I

O sight of pity, shame and dole!
O fearful thought -- a convict soul.

Rang the refrain along the hall, the prison,
Rose to the roof, the vaults of heaven above,
Pouring in floods of melody in tones so pensive sweet and
strong the like whereof was never heard,
Reaching the far-off sentry and the armed guards, who
ceas'd their pacing,
Making the hearer's pulses stop for ecstasy and awe.

The sun was low in the west one winter day,
When down a narrow aisle amid the thieves and outlaws of the land,
(There by the hundreds seated, sear-faced murderers, wily
counterfeiters,
Gather'd to Sunday church in prison walls, the keepers round,
Plenteous, well-armed, watching with vigilant eyes,)
Calmly a lady walk'd holding a little innocent child by either hand,
Whom seating on their stools beside her on the platform,
She, first preluding with the instrument a low and musical prelude,
In voice surpassing all, sang forth a quaint old hymn.

A soul confined by bars and bands,
Cries, help! O help! and wrings her hands
Blinded her eyes, bleeding her breast,
Nor pardon finds, nor balm of rest.

Ceaseless she paces to and fro,
O heart-sick days! O nights of woe!
Nor hand of friend, nor loving face,
Nor favor comes, nor word of grace.

It was not I that sinn'd the sin,
The ruthless body dragg'd me in;
Though long I strove courageously,
The body was too much for me.

Dear prison'd soul bear up a space,
For soon or late the certain grace;
To set thee free and bear thee home,
The heavenly pardoner death shall come.

Convict no more, nor shame, nor dole!
Depart -- a God-enfranchis'd soul!

3

The singer ceas'd,
One glance swept from her clear calm eyes o'er all those
upturn'd faces,
Strange sea of prison faces, a thousand varied, crafty,
brutal, seam'd and beauteous faces,
Then rising, passing back along the narrow aisle between them,
While her gown touch'd them rustling in the silence,
She vanish'd with her children in the dusk.

While upon all, convicts and armed keepers ere they stirr'd,
(Convict forgetting prison, keeper his loaded pistol,)
A hush and pause fell down a wondrous minute,
With deep half-stifled sobs and sound of bad men bow'd and
moved to weeping,
And youth's convulsive breathings, memories of home,
The mother's voice in lullaby, the sister's care, the happy childhood,
The long-pent spirit rous'd to reminiscence;
A wondrous minute then -- but after in the solitary night,
to many, many there,
Years after, even in the hour of death, the sad refrain,
the tune, the voice, the words.
Resumed, the large calm lady walks the narrow aisle,
The wailing melody again, the singer in the prison sings,

O sight of pity, shame and dole!
O fearful thought -- a convict soul.





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