Charles Kingsley, Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet: Ch. 30

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Chapter XXX: Prison Thoughts

I was alone in my cell.

Three years' imprisonment! Thirty-six months!—one thousand and ninety-five days—and twenty-four whole hours in each of them! Well—I should sleep half the time: one-third at least. Perhaps I should not be able to sleep! To lie awake, and think—there! the thought was horrible—it was all horrible. To have three whole years cut out of my life, instead of having before me, as I had always as yet had, a mysterious Eldorado of new schemes and hopes, possible developments, possible triumphs, possible bliss—to have nothing, nothing before me but blank and stagnation, dead loss and waste: and then to go out again, and start once more where I had left off yesterday!

It should not be! I would not lose these years! I would show myself a man; they should feel my strength just when they fancied they had crushed me utterly! They might bury me, but I should rise again!—I should rise again more glorious, perhaps to be henceforth immortal, and live upon the lips of men. I would educate myself; I would read—what would I not read? These three years should be a time of sacred retirement and contemplation, as of Thebaid Anchorite, or Mahomet in his Arabian cave. I would write pamphlets that should thunder through the land, and make tyrants tremble on their thrones! All England—at least all crushed and suffering hearts—should break forth at my fiery words into one roar of indignant sympathy. No—I would write a poem; I would concentrate all my experience, my aspirations, all the hopes, and wrongs, and sorrows of the poor, into one garland of thorns—one immortal epic of suffering. What should I call it? And I set to work deliberately—such a thing is man—to think of a title.

I looked up, and my eye caught the close bars of the little window; and then came over me, for the first time, the full meaning of that word—Prison; that word which the rich use so lightly, knowing well that there is no chance, in these days, of there ever finding themselves in one; for the higher classes never break the laws—seeing that they have made them to fit themselves. Ay, I was in prison. I could not go out or come in at will. I was watched, commanded at every turn. I was a brute animal, a puppet, a doll, that children put away in a cupboard, and there it lies. And yet my whole soul was as wide, fierce, roving, struggling as ever. Horrible contradiction! The dreadful sense of helplessness, the crushing weight of necessity, seemed to choke me. The smooth white walls, the smooth white ceiling, seemed squeezing in closer and closer on me, and yet dilating into vast inane infinities, just as the merest knot of mould will transform itself, as one watches it, and nothing else, into enormous cliffs, long slopes of moor, and spurs of mountain-range. Oh, those smooth white walls and ceilings! If there had but been a print—a stain of dirt—a cobweb, to fleck their unbroken ghastliness! They stared at me, like grim, impassive, featureless formless fiends; all the more dreadful for their sleek, hypocritic cleanliness—purity as of a saint-inquisitor watching with spotless conscience the victim on the rack. They choked me—I gasped for breath, stretched out my arms, rolled shrieking on the floor—the narrow chequered glimpse of free blue sky, seen through the window, seemed to fade dimmer and dimmer, farther and farther off. I sprang up, as if to follow it—rushed to the bars, shook and wrenched at them with my thin, puny arms—and stood spell-bound, as I caught sight of the cathedral towers, standing out in grand repose against the horizontal fiery bars of sunset, like great angels at the gates of Paradise, watching in stately sorrow all the wailing and the wrong below. And beneath, beneath—the well-known roofs—Lillian's home, and all its proud and happy memories! It was but a corner of a gable, a scrap of garden, that I could see beyond intervening roofs and trees—but could I mistake them? There was the very cedar-tree; I knew its dark pyramid but too well! There I had walked by her; there, just behind that envious group of chestnuts, she was now. The light was fading; it must be six o'clock; she must be in her room now, dressing herself for dinner, looking so beautiful! And as I gazed, and gazed, all the intervening objects became transparent and vanished before the intensity of my imagination. Were my poems in her room still? Perhaps she had thrown them away—the condemned rioter's poems! Was she thinking of me? Yes—with horror and contempt. Well, at least she was thinking of me. And she would understand me at last—she must. Some day she would know all I had borne for love of her—the depth, the might, the purity of my adoration. She would see the world honouring me, in the day of my triumph, when I was appreciated at last; when I stood before the eyes of admiring men, a people's singer, a king of human spirits, great with the rank which genius gives, then she would find out what a man had loved her: then she would know the honour, the privilege of a poet's worship.