The Pleasure of Imprisonment

An Epistle to a Friend

You ask, my friend, and well you may,

You ask, how I spend the day;

I’ll tell you, in unstudied rhyme,

How wisely I befool my time:

Expect not wit, not fancy then,

In this effusion of my pen;

 

These idle lines – they might be worse –

Are simple prose, in simple voice.

 

Each morning, then, at five o’clock,

The adamantine doors unlock;

Bolts, bars, and portals crash and thunder;

The gates of iron burst asunder;

Hinges that creak, and keys that jingle,

With clattering chains, in concert mingle:

So sweet the din, your dainty ear,

For joy would break its drum to hear;

While my dull organs, at the sound,

Rest in tranquillity profound!

Fanatic dreams amuse my brain,

And waft my spirit home again:

Though captive all day long, ‘tis true,

At night I am as free as you;

Not ramparts high, nor dungeons deep,

Can hold me – when I’m fast asleep!

 

But everything is good in season,

I dream at large – and wake in prison!

Yet think not, Sir, I lie too late,

I rise as early even as eight:

Ten hours of drowsiness are plenty,

For any man, in four and twenty.

You smile – and yet ‘tis nobly done,

I’m but five hours behind the sun!

For thus, by Pheaton’s folly taught,

I keep my distances as I ought,

Lest I, like him, should chance to break,

By rising with the sun ­– my neck!

 

When dressed, I to the yard repair,

And breakfast on the pure, fresh air:

 

But though this choice Castalian cheer

Keeps both the head and stomach clear,

For weighty reasons I make free

To mend the meal with toast and tea.

Now air and same, as poets sing,

And both the same, the self same thing;

Yet bards are not chameleons quite,

And heavenly food is very light:

Who ever fattened on a name?

Or made a pigeon-pie of fame?

Even bishops will not be confined

To dine on air and sup on wind.

 

Breakfast dispatched, I sometimes read,

To clear the cob-webs from my head:

 

For books, my friend, are charming brooms

To sweep the dust of upper rooms!

As in an ample Cheshire cheese,

Fat, lazy maggots dwell at ease,

Or mites, in millions, swarm and thrive,

Til every atom is alive;

So in the chamber of a brain,

O’er which the moon extends her reign,

Strange creeping things, called thoughts, are bred,

Among the lumber of the head,

That throng around the pineal gland,

Rank as the frogs in Egypt’s land!

A brain, with such wild tenants fraught,

Would soon be bit to death with thought,

 

If reading, writing eating, drinking,

Did not sometimes relieve the thinking!

 

But books, besides, are cures, I ween,

Both for the cholic and the spleen.

When genius, wisdom, wit abound,

And honest sense shakes hands with sound;

When art and nature both combine,

And live, and breathe, in every line;

The reader glows along the page,

With all the author’s native rage!

But books there are of nothing full,

Except the wit of being dull;

With most unmeaning meaning fraught, –

Ten thousand words and ne’re a thought!

 

Where periods without period crawl,

Like caterpillars on a wall,

That fall to climb, and climb to fall;

While still their efforts only tend

To keep them from their journey’s end!

The readers yawn with pure vexation,

And nod – but not with approbation!

As in a wilderness of snow,

An ass may ramble to and fro;

From drift to drift pursue his way,

Yet wander more and more astray;

Blind with the dazzling waste of white,

He cannot see his road for light:

But plunges, sinks, and brays amain,

While cold benumbs each drowsy vein;

 

Till night and sleep at length o’ertake him,

And then – not all the world can wake him!

Thus in a fog of dullness lost,

Job’s patience must give up the ghost:

Not Argys’ eyes awake could keep;

Even death might read himself to sleep!

At half past ten, or there about,

My eyes are all upon the scout,

To see the lounging post-boy come,

With letters or with news from home.

Believe me, sir, upon my word,

Although the doctrine seem absurd,

The paper messengers of friends

For absence almost make amends:

 

But if you think I jest or lie,

Come to York Castle, sir, and try!

When high the tide of fancy flows,

The muses take me by the nose:

With brains on fire, I boldly then

Bestride my Pegansean pen;

Borne on an honest gander’s quill,

I fly triumphant where I will;

Beneath my feet York Castle falls,

With all its bolts, and bars, and walls,

I burst the bounds of day and night –

The world’s too little to take flight;

I dance with stars, with planets run,

Explore the moon, salute the sun:

 

Then leaving nature’s narrow bound,

(Bard scorn to tread on solid ground)

I wing my way, with toil and pain,

Where endless night and nothing reign:

There, in a sea, without a coast,

My senses are myself are lost!

 

Sometimes to fairy land I rove:

Those iron rails become a grove;

These stately buildings fall away

To moss-grown cottages of clay;

Debtors are changes to jolly swain,

Who pipe and whistle on the plains;

Yon felons grim, with fetters bound,

Are satyrs wild, with garlands crowned:

 

Their clanking chains are wreaths of flowers;

Their horrid cells ambrosial bowers;

The oaths, expiring on their tongues,

And metamorphosed into songs;

While wretched female prisoners, lo!

Are Diana’s nymphs of virgin snow!

Those hideous walls with verdure shoot;

These pillars bend with blushing fruit;

That dunghill swells into a mountain,

And, lo! The pump becomes the fountain!

The noisome smoke of yonder mills*,

The circling air with fragrance fills;

 

Yon horse-pond spreads into a lake,

And swans of ducks and geese I make!

Sparrows are changed to turtle doves,

That bill and coo their pretty loves;

Wagtails, turned thrushes, charm the vales,

And tomtits sing like nightingales!

No more the wind through keyhole whistles,

But sighs on beds of pinks and thistles;

The rattling rain, that beats without,

And gargles down the leaden spout,

In light, delicious dew distils,

And melts away in amber rills!

Elysium rises on the green,

And health and beauty crown the scene:

While, prince of these romantic plains,

Our ever-honoured keeper reigns;

 

Whose generous fool, with equal ease,

Knows how to rule, and how to please!

Then by the’ enchantress Fancy led,

On violet banks I lay my head;

Legions of radiant forms arise,

In fair array, before mine eyes;

Poetic visions gild my brain,

Then melt in liquid air again!

As in a magic lantern clear,

Fantastic images appear;

That beaming from the’ enamelled glass,

In beautiful succession pass;

Yet steal the lustre of their light

From the deep shadow of the night:

 

Thus in the darkness of my head,

Ten thousand shining things are bred,

That borrow splendour from the gloom,

As glow-worms twinkle in a tomb!

 

But lest these glories should confound me,

Kind Dullness draws her curtain round me;

The visions vanish in a trice,

And I awake as cold as ice:

Nothing remains of all the vapour,

Save­ – what I send you – ink and paper!

 

Thus flow my morning hours along,

Smooth as the numbers of my song:

Yet let me ramble as I will,

I feel I am a prisoner still.

 

Thus Robin, with the blushing breast,

Is ravished from his little nest

By barbarous boys, who bind his leg,

To make him flutter round a peg:

See the glad captive spreads his winds,

Mounts, in a moment, mounts and sings,

When suddenly the cruel chain

Twitches him back to his piston again!

– The clock strikes one – I can’t delay,

For dinner comes but once a day!

At present, worthy friend, farewell;

But by tomorrow’s post I’ll tell,

How, during these half dozen moons,

I cheat the lazy afternoons!

 

Castle of York, June 13

1796.

 

* The Castle Steam Mills, the smoke of which is an insufferable nuisance here, and a punishment to which the unfortunate inhabitants of this place are doomed without authority.
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