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Title: The Singer in the Prison

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: December 25, 1869

Whitman Archive ID: per.00079

Source: Saturday Evening Visitor 25 December 1869: [4]. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the periodical poems, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, April Lambert, and Susan Belasco

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[Written for the Saturday Evening Visitor.]







O sight of shame, and pain, and dole!
O fearful thought—a convict Soul!
Rang the refrain along the hall, the prison,
Rose to the roof, the vaults of heaven above,
Pouring in floods of melody, in tones so pensive, sweet,
and strong, the like whereof was never heard,
Reaching the far-off sentry, and the armed guards,
who ceas'd their pacing,
Making the hearer's pulses stop for ecstacy and
awed amazement.


O sight of pity, gloom, and dole,
O pardon me, a hapless Soul!
The sun was low in the west one winter day,
When down a narrow aisle amid the thieves and
outlaws of the land,
(There by the hundreds seated, sear-faced murderers,
wily counterfeiters,
All that dark, cankerous blotch, a nation's criminal
Gather'd to Christmas church in prison walls—the
keepers round,
Plenteous, well-arm'd, with watching, vigilant eyes,)
Calmly a Lady walk'd, holding a little innocent
child by either hand,
Whom, seating on their stools beside her on the
She, first preluding with the instrument, a low and
musical prelude,
In voice surpassing all, sang forth a quaint old hymn.


The Hymn.

A Soul, confined by bars and bands,
Cries, Help! O help! and wrings her hands;
Blinded her eyes—bleeding her breast,
Nor pardon finds, nor balm of rest.
O sight of shame, and pain, and dole,
O fearful thought—a convict Soul!
Ceaseless, she paces to and fro;
O heart-sick days! O nights of wo!
Nor hand of friend, nor loving face;
Nor favor comes, nor word of grace.
O sight of pity, gloom, and dole!
O pardon me, a hapless Soul!
It was not I that sinn'd the sin,
The ruthless Body dragg'd me in;
Though long I strove courageously,
The Body was too much for me
O Life! no life, but bitter dole!
O burning, beaten, baffled Soul!
Dear prison'd Soul, bear up a space,
For soon or late the certain grace;
To set thee free, and bear thee home,
The Heavenly Pardoner, Death shall come.
Convict no more—nor shame, nor dole!
Depart! a God-enfranchis'd Soul!


The singer ceased;
One glance swept from her clear, calm eyes, o'er
all those up-turn'd faces;
Strange sea of prison faces—a thousand varied,
crafty, brutal, seam'd and beauteous faces;
Then rising, passing back along the narrow aisle
between them,
While her gown touch'd them, rustling in the
She vanish'd with her children in the dusk.


While upon all, convicts and armed keepers, ere
they stirr'd,
(Convict forgetting prison, keeper his loaded pistol,)
A hush and pause fell down, a wondrous minute,
With deep, half-stifled sobs, and sound of bad men
bow'd, and moved to weeping,
And youth's convulsive breathings, memories of
The mother's voice in lullaby, the sister's care, the
happy childhood,
The long-pent spirit rous'd to reminiscence.
A wonderous minute then—but after, in the solitary
night, to many, many there,
Years after—even in the hour of death—the sad
refrain—the tune, the voice, the words,
Resumed—the large, calm Lady walks the narrow
The wailing melody again—the singer in the prison
O sight of shame, and pain, and dole!
O fearful thought—a convict Soul!


1. Reprinted in Passage to India (1871). [back]


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