Pleasures of Imprisonment – Epistle II


THE

PLEASURES OF IMPRISONMENT:

THE

SECOND EPISTLE TO A FRIEND.


The man who first invented dinners

Was certainly the chief of sinners;

For those who once the habit gain,

May long to leave them off in vain:

Nor even in gaol can folk forget,

To eat, to drink, and run in debt!

Thousands, by dinners, are undone,

But woe to those who can get none!

Though many a one has died with dining,

Yet many more have perished pining:

While too much dinner is a curse,

No dinner is as bad, or worse;

But who would give a pin to chuse,

To die of famine or roast goose?

In this sweet place, where freedom reigns,

Secured by bolts and snug in chains;

Where innocence and guilt together

Roost like two turtles of a feather;

Where debtors safe at anchor lie,

From saucy duns and bailiffs fly;

Where highwaymen and robbers stout,

Would, rather than break in, break out;

Where all’s so guarded and recluse,

That none his liberty can lose! —

Here each may, as his means afford,

Dine like a pauper or a lord;

And he who can’t the cost defray,

Is welcome, sir, to fast and pray!

There is a sympathy between

The stomach and the purse, I ween;

For here, in every change of weather,

They fill and empty both together:

Yet with the heart at variance quite,

When those are heavy this is light;

But when the former lose their weight,

Then doth the heart preponderate!

 

Now let us ramble o’er the green,

To see and hear, be heard and seen;

To breathe the air, enjoy the light,

And hail yon sun, who shines as bright

Upon the dungeon and the gallows,

As on York Minster or Kew Palace!

And here let us the scene review:

That’s the old castle, this the new;

Yonder the felons walk, and there

The lady-prisoners take the air;

Behind are solitary cells,

Where hermits live like snails in shells;

There stands the chapel for good people,

And yon balcony is the steeple;

How gayly spins the weather-cock!

How proudly shines the crazy clock!

A clock, whose wheels eccentric run,

More like my head than like the sun!

And yet it shews us, right or wrong,

The days are only twelve hours long;

Though captives often reckon here,

Each day a month, each month a year!

There honest William stands in state,

Like grim St. Peter at heaven’s gate;

But not so scrupulous is he,

Entrance to all the world is free;

Yet what, methinks, is rather hard,

Egress is frequently debarred;

Of all the joys in prison that reign,

There’s none like — getting out again!

Across the green, behold the court,

Where jargon reigns and wigs resort;

Where bloody tongues fight bloodless battles,

For life and death, for straws and rattles;

Where juries yawn their patience out,

And judges dream in spite of gout.

There, on the outside of the door,

(As sang a wicked wag of yore*)

Stands Mother Justice, tall and thin,

Who never yet hath ventured in!

The cause, my friend, may soon be shewn,

The lady was a stepping stone,

Till — though the metamorphose odd is —

A chissel made the block a goddess!

— “Odd!” did I say? — I’m wrong this

time;

But I was hampered for a rhyme:

Justice at — I could tell you where: —

Is just the same as justice here!

 

But, lo! my striking dog attends,

The kindest of four-footed friends;

Brim full of giddiness and mirth,

He is the prettiest fool on earth!

I call this fond companion Billy,

But wiser people call him Silly;

Because, in spite of rhyme and reason,

He chuses to reside in prison;

And, though his home is in the city,

He boards with me for bones — or pity!

The rogue’s about a squirrel’s size,

With short snub nose and big black eyes;

A cloud of brown adorns his tail,

That curls and serves him for a sail;

The same deep auburn dyes his ears,

That never were abridged by shears;

While white, around, as Lapland snows,

His hair, in soft profusion, flows;

Waves on his breast and plumes his feet,

With glossy fringe, like feathers fleet.

Billy’s a mendicant by trade,

And begs — or steals — his daily bread;

A thousand antic tricks he plays,

And looks, at once, a thousand ways;

His wit, if he has any, lies

Somewhere between his tail and eyes;

Sooner the light those eyes will fail;

Than Billy cease to wag that tail.

Though never taught to read or write,

I’ve heard him bark, and felt him bite:

For teeth and tongue he freely lends,

To plague his foes or please his friends.

 

And yet the fellow ne’er is safe

From the tremendous beak of Ralph;

A raven grim, in black and blue,

As arch a knave as e’er you knew;

Who hops about with broken pinions,

And thinks these walls his own dominions!

This wag a mortal foe to Bill is,

They fight like Hector and Achilles,

Bold Billy runs with all his might,

And conquers, Parthian-like, in flight;

While Ralph his own importance feels,

And wages endless war with heels:

Horses and dogs, and geese and deer,

He slily pinches in the rear;

They start, surprised with sudden pain,

While honest Ralph sheers off again!

 

Next an unhappy buck appears,

With rueful look and flagging ears;

A feeble, lean, consumptive elf,

The very picture of myself!

My ghost-like form and new-moon phiz,

Are just the counter parts of his:

Blasted like me by fortune’s frown;

Like me TWICE hunted, TWICE run

down!

Like me pursued, almost to death,

He’s come to gaol to save his breath!

Still, on his painful limbs, are seen

The scars where worrying dogs have been;

Still, in his woe-imprinted face,

I weep a broken heart to trace.

Daily the mournful wretch I feed,

With crumbs of comfort and of bread;

But man, false man! so well he knows,

He deems the species all his foes:

In vain I smile to soothe his fear,

He will not, dare not, come too near;

He lingers — looks — and fain he would —

Then strains his neck to reach the food.

Oft as his plaintive looks I see,

A brother’s bowels yearn in me;

I share his griefs with feelings fond,

As strings in unison respond.

What rocks and tempests yet await

Both him and me, we leave to fate:

We know, by past experience taught,

That innocence availeth nought:

I know, and ’tis my proudest boast,

That conscience is itself an host;

While this inspires my swelling breast,

Let all forsake me — I’m at rest!

Ten thousand deaths, in every nerve,

I’d rather SUFFER than DESERVE!

 

But yonder comes the victim’s wife,

A dappled doe, all fire and life:

She trips along with gallant pace,

Her limbs alert, her motion grace;

Soft as the moon-light fairies bound,

Her footsteps scarcely kiss the ground;

Gently she lifts her fair brown head,

And licks my hand, and begs for bread:

I pat her forehead, stroke her neck,

She starts and gives a modest squeak;

Then, while her eye with brilliance burns,

The fawning animal returns;

Pricks her bob-tail, and waves her ears,

And happier than a queen appears!

— Sweet nymph! from fierce ambition free,

And all the WOES of LIBERTY;

Born in a gaol, a prisoner bred,

No dreams of hunting rack thine head;

Ah! mayst thou never pass these bounds,

To see the world — and feel the hounds! —

Still all her beauty, all her art,

Have failed to win her husband’s heart;

Her lambent eyes and lovely chest;

Her swan-white neck, and ermine breast;

Her taper legs, and spotty hide,

So softly, delicately pied,

In vain their fond allurements spread,

Her spouse — has antlers on his head!

Yet why should those be deemed unpleasant,

They’re Nature’s and not Nanny’s present!

 

But, lo! the evening shadows fall

Broader and browner from the wall;

A warning voice, like curfew bell,

Commands each captive to his cell;

My faithful dog and I retire,

To play and chatter by the fire:

Soon comes a turnkey with “Good night,

“sir!”

And bolts the door with all his might, sir!

Then leisurely to bed I creep,

And sometimes wake — and sometimes sleep.

 

These are the joys that reign in prison,

And if I’m happy, ’tis with reason:

Yet still this prospect, o’er the rest,

Makes every blessing doubly blest;

That soon these pleasures will be vanished,

And I, from all these comforts, banished!

 

Castle of York, June 14th, 1796.

 

*“On the outside stands Justice, who never walks in!”—

Vide a Song well known in York Castle.