The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 7/Spirits in Prison



O ye, who, prisoned in these festive rooms,
Lean at the windows for a breath of air,
Staring upon the darkness that o'erglooms
The heavens, and waiting for the stars to bare
Their glittering glories, veiled all night in cloud,
I know ye scorn the gas-lights and the feast!
I saw you leave the music and the crowd,
And turn unto the windows opening east;
I heard you sigh,—"When will the dawn's dull ashes
Kindle their fires behind yon fir-fringed height?
When will the prophet clouds with golden flashes
Unroll their mystic scrolls of crimson light?"
Fain would I come and sit beside you here,
And silent press your hands, and with you lean
Into the midnight, mingling hope and fear,
Or pining for the days that might have been!


Are we not brothers? In the throng that fills
These strange enchanted rooms we met. One look
Told that we knew each other. Sudden thrills,
As of two lovers reading the same book,
Ran through our hurried grasp. But when we turned,
The scene around was smitten with a change:
The lamps with lurid fire-light flared and burned;
And through the wreaths and flowers,—oh, mockery strange!—
The prison-walls with ghastly horror frowned;
Scarce hidden by vine-leaves and clusters thick,
A grim cold iron grating closed around.
Then from our silken couches leaping quick,
We hurried past the dancers and the lights,
Nor heeded the entrancing music then,
Nor the fair women scattering delights
In flower-like flush of dress,—nor paused till when,
Leaning against our prison-bars, we gazed
Into the dark, and wondered where we were.
Speak to me, brothers, for ye stand amazed!
I come, your secret burthen here to share!


I know not this mysterious land around.
Black giant trees loom up in form obscure.
Odors of gardens and of woods profound
Blow in from out the darkness, fresh and pure.
Faint sounds of friendly voices come and go,
That seem to lure us forth into the air;
But whence they come perchance no ear may know,
And where they go perchance no foot may dare.


A realm of shadowy forms out yonder lies.
Beauty and Power, fair dreams pursued by Fate,
Wheel in unceasing vortex; and the skies
Flash with strange lights that bear no name nor date.
Sweet winds are breathing that just fan the hair,
And fitful gusts that howl against the bars,
And harp-like songs, and groans of wild despair,
And angry clouds that chase the trembling stars.
And on the iron grating the hot cheek
We press, and forth into the night we call,
And thrust our arms, that, manacled and weak,
Clutch but the empty air, and powerless fall.


And yet, O brothers! we, who cannot share
This life of lies, this stifling day in night,—
Know we not well, that, if we did but dare
Break from our cell, and trust our manhood's might,
When once our feet should venture on these wilds,
The night would prove a sweet, still solitude,—
Not dark for eyes that, earnest as a child's,
Strove in the chaos but for truth and good?
And oh, sweet liberty, though wizard gleams
And elfin shapes should frighten or allure,
To find the pathway of our hopes and dreams,—
By toil to sweeten what we should endure,—
To journey on, though but a little way,
Towards the morning and the fir-clad heights,—
To follow the sweet voices, till the day
Bloomed in its flush of colors and of lights,—
To look back on the valley and the prison,
The windows smouldering still with midnight fires,
And know the joy and triumph to have risen
Out of that falsehood into new desires!
O friends! it may be hard our chains to burst,
To scale the ramparts, pass the sentinels;
Dark is the night; but we are not the first
Who break from the enchanter's evil spells.
Though they pursue us with their scoffs and darts,
Though they allure us with their siren song,
Trust we alone the light within our hearts!
Forth to the air! Freedom will dawn ere long!

  1. 1 Peter, iii. 19.

This work was published before January 1, 1926, and is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.