Nonfiction > Upton Sinclair, ed. > The Cry for Justice

Upton Sinclair, ed. (1878–1968).
The Cry for Justice: An Anthology of the Literature of Social Protest.  1915.
A Hanging in Prison
(From “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”)

By Oscar Wilde

(English poet and dramatist, 1856–1900, leader of the so-called “esthetes.” The poem from which these extracts are taken was the fruit of his long imprisonment, and is one of the most moving and terrible narratives in English poetry)
WITH slouch and swing around the ring
  We trod the Fools’ Parade;
We did not care; we knew we were
  The Devil’s Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead        5
  Make a merry masquerade.
We tore the tarry rope to shreds
  With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
  And cleaned the shining rails:        10
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
  And clattered with the pails.
We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
  We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,        15
  And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
  Terror was lying still.
So still it lay that every day
  Crawled like a weed-clogged wave;        20
And we forgot the bitter lot
  That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
  We passed an open grave.
With yawning mouth the yellow hole        25
  Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
  To the thirsty asphalt ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
  Some prisoner had to swing.        30
Right in we went, with soul intent
  On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
  Went shuffling through the gloom:
And each man trembled as he crept        35
  Into his numbered tomb.
That night the empty corridors
  Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
  Stole feet we could not hear,        40
And through the bars that hide the stars
  White faces seemed to peer.…
We were as men who through a fen
  Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,        45
  Or to give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
  And what was dead was Hope.
For Man’s grim Justice goes its way,
  And will not swerve aside:        50
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
  It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
  The monstrous parricide.
We waited for the stroke of eight:        55
  Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
  That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
  For the best man and the worst.        60
We had no other thing to do,
  Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
  Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man’s heart beat thick and quick        65
  Like a madman on a drum!
With sudden shock the prison-clock
  Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
  Of impotent despair,        70
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
  From some leper in his lair.
And as one sees most fearful things
  In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope        75
  Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman’s snare
  Strangled into a scream.
And all the woe that moved him so
  That he gave that bitter cry,        80
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
  None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
  More deaths than one must die.
There is no chapel on the day        85
  On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain’s heart is far too sick,
  Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
  Which none should look upon.        90
So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
  And then they rang the bell,
And the Warders with their jingling keys
  Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stairs we tramped,        95
  Each from his separate Hell.
Out into God’s sweet air we went,
  But not in wonted way,
For this man’s face was white with fear,
  And that man’s face was grey,        100
And I never saw sad men who looked
  So wistfully at the day.
I never saw sad men who looked
  With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue        105
  We prisoners call the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
  In happy freedom by.…
The Warders strutted up and down,
  And kept their herd of brutes,        110
Their uniforms were spick and span,
  And they were their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at
  By the quicklime on their boots.
For where a grave had opened wide        115
  There was no grave at all:
Only a stretch of mud and sand
  By the hideous prison-wall,
And a little heap of burning lime,
  That the man should have his pall.        120
For he has a pall, this wretched man,
  Such as few men can claim;
Deep down below a prison-yard,
  Naked for greater shame,
He lies, with fetters on each foot,        125
  Wrapt in a sheet of flame!…
I know not whether Laws be right,
  Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in jail
  Is that the wall is strong;        130
And that each day is like a year,
  A year whose days are long.
But this I know, that every Law
  That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,        135
  And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
  With a most evil fan.
This too I know—and wise it were
  If each could know the same—        140
That every prison that men build
  Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
  How men their brothers maim.
With bars they blur the gracious moon,        145
  And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
  For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
  Ever should look upon!        150
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
  Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
  That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,        155
  And the Warder is Despair.
For they starve the little frightened child
  Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
  And gibe the old and grey,        160
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
  And none a word may say.

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