The Prisoner For Debt

Before the law authorizing imprisonment for debt had been abolished in

Massachusetts, a revolutionary pensioner was confined in Charlestown

jail for a debt of fourteen dollars, and on the fourth of July was seen

waving a handkerchief from the bars of his cell in honor of the day.

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;

Oh, sad and crushing is the fate

Of old age chained and desolate!

Just God! why lies that old man there?

A murderer shares his prison bed,

Whose eyeballs, through his 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 gray-haired prisoner done?

Has murder stained his hands with gore?

Not so; his crime's a fouler one;

God made the old man poor!

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 such a place of rest,

Old prisoner, dropped thy blood as rain

On Concord's field, and Bunker's crest,

And Saratoga's plain?

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 service 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.


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