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A Prisoner For Debt

by John Greenleaf Whittier

John Greenleaf Whittier, American Romantic poet and abolitionist, was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts on December 17, 1807, and died on September 7, 1892. He is considered a Fireside Poet, or part of a group of New England authors that wrote material very suitable to be read as entertainment to members of a family, often read aloud in front of a residential fireplace.


Look on him! — through his dungeon grate 
 Feebly and cold, the morning light 
Comes stealing round him, dim and late, 
 As if it loathed the sight. 
Reclining on his strawy bed, 
His hand upholds his drooping head,— 
His bloodless cheek is seamed and hard, 
Unshorn his gray, neglected beard; 
And o'er his bony fingers flow 
His long, dishevelled locks of snow.

No grateful fire before him glows, 
 And yet the winter's breath is chill; 
And o'er his half-clad person goes 
 The frequent ague thrill! 
Silent, save ever and anon, 
A sound, half murmur and half groan, 
Forces apart the painful grip 
Of the old sufferer's bearded lip; 
O sad and crushing is the fate 
Of old age chained and desolate!

Just God! why lies that old man there? 
 A murderer spares his prison bed, 
Whose eyeballs, through this horrid hair, 
 Gleam on him, fierce and red; 
And the rude oath and heartless jeer 
Fall ever on his loathing ear, 
And, or in wakefulness or sleep, 
Nerve, flesh, and pulses thrill and creep 
Whene'er that ruffian's tossing limb, 
Crimson with murder, touches him!

What has the grey-haired prisoner done! 
 Has murder stained his hands with gore? 
Not so; his crime's a fouler one; 
For this he shares a felon's cell, — 
The fittest earthly type of hell! 
For this, the boon for which he poured 
His young blood on the invader's sword, 
And counted light the fearful cost, — 
His blood-gained liberty is lost!

And so, for much a place of rest, 
 Old prisoner, dropped thy blood as rain 
On Concord's field, and Bunker's crest, 
 And Saratoga's plan — 
Look forth, thou man of many scars, 
Through thy dim dungeon's iron bars; 
It must be joy, in sooth, to see 
Yon monument upreared to thee, — 
Piled granite and a prison cell, — 
The land repays thy services well!

Go, ring the bells and fire the guns, 
 And fling the starry banner out; 
Shout "Freedom!" till your lisping ones 
 Give back their cradle shout; 
Let boastful eloquence declaim 
Of honor, liberty, and fame; 
Still let the poet's strain be heard, 
With glory for each second word, 
And everything with breath agree 
To praise "our glorious liberty!"

But when the patron cannon jars, 
 That prison's cold and gloomy wall, 
And through its grates the stripes and stars 
 Rise on the wind and fall,  — 
Think ye that prisoner's aged ear 
Rejoices in the general cheer  — 
Think ye his dim and failing eye 
Is kindled at your pageantry? 
Sorrowing of soul, and chained of limb, 
What is your carnival to him?

Down with the LAW that binds him thus! 
 Unworthy freemen, let it find 
No refuge from the withering curse 
 Of God and human kind! 
Open the prison's living tomb, 
And usher from its brooding gloom 
The victims of your savage code 
To the free sun and air of God; 
No longer dare as crime to brand 
The chastening of the Almighty's hand.


— Our Favorites, By Mrs. General O.C. Maxwell, p.256

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