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Poetry and Prison

(Pall Mall Gazette, January 3, 1889.)


Prison has had an admirable effect on Mr. Wilfrid Blunt as a poet. The Love Sonnets of Proteus, in spite of their clever Musset-like modernities and their swift brilliant wit, were but affected or fantastic at best. They were simply the records of passing moods and moments, of which some were sad and others sweet, and not a few shameful. Their subject was not of high or serious import. They contained much that was wilful and weak. In Vinculis, upon the other hand, is a book that stirs one by its fine sincerity of purpose, its lofty and impassioned thought, its depth and ardour of intense feeling. 'Imprisonment,' says Mr. Blunt in his preface, 'is a reality of discipline most useful to the modern soul, lapped as it is in physical sloth and self-indulgence. Like a sickness or a spiritual retreat it purifies and ennobles; and the soul emerges from it stronger and more self-contained.' To him, certainly, it has been a mode of purification. The opening sonnets, composed in the bleak cell of Galway Gaol, and written down on the flyleaves of the prisoner's prayer-book, are full of things nobly conceived and nobly uttered, and show that though Mr. Balfour may enforce 'plain living' by his prison regulations, he cannot prevent 'high thinking' or in any way limit or constrain the freedom of a man's soul. They are, of course, intensely personal in expression. They could not fail to be so. But the personality that they reveal has nothing petty or ignoble about it. The petulant cry of the shallow egoist which was the chief characteristic of the Love Sonnets of Proteus is not to be found here. In its place we have wild grief and terrible scorn, fierce rage and flame-like passion. Such a sonnet as the following comes out of the very fire of heart and brain:

God knows, 'twas not with a fore-reasoned plan I left the easeful dwellings of my peace, And sought this combat with ungodly Man, And ceaseless still through years that do not cease Have warred with Powers and Principalities. My natural soul, ere yet these strifes began, Was as a sister diligent to please And loving all, and most the human clan.

God knows it. And He knows how the world's tears Touched me. And He is witness of my wrath, How it was kindled against murderers Who slew for gold, and how upon their path I met them. Since which day the World in arms Strikes at my life with angers and alarms.

And this sonnet has all the strange strength of that despair which is but the prelude to a larger hope:

I thought to do a deed of chivalry, An act of worth, which haply in her sight Who was my mistress should recorded be And of the nations. And, when thus the fight Faltered and men once bold with faces white Turned this and that way in excuse to flee, I only stood, and by the foeman's might Was overborne and mangled cruelly.

Then crawled I to her feet, in whose dear cause I made this venture, and 'Behold,' I said, 'How I am wounded for thee in these wars.' But she, 'Poor cripple, would'st thou I should wed A limbless trunk?' and laughing turned from me. Yet she was fair, and her name 'Liberty.'

The sonnet beginning

A prison is a convent without God-- Poverty, Chastity, Obedience Its precepts are:

is very fine; and this, written just after entering the gaol, is powerful:

Naked I came into the world of pleasure, And naked come I to this house of pain. Here at the gate I lay down my life's treasure, My pride, my garments and my name with men. The world and I henceforth shall be as twain, No sound of me shall pierce for good or ill These walls of grief. Nor shall I hear the vain Laughter and tears of those who love me still.

Within, what new life waits me! Little ease, Cold lying, hunger, nights of wakefulness, Harsh orders given, no voice to soothe or please, Poor thieves for friends, for books rules meaningless; This is the grave--nay, hell. Yet, Lord of Might, Still in Thy light my spirit shall see light.

But, indeed, all the sonnets are worth reading, and The Canon of Aughrim, the longest poem in the book, is a most masterly and dramatic description of the tragic life of the Irish peasant. Literature is not much indebted to Mr. Balfour for his sophistical Defence of Philosophic Doubt, which is one of the dullest books we know, but it must be admitted that by sending Mr. Blunt to gaol he has converted a clever rhymer into an earnest and deep-thinking poet. The narrow confines of a prison cell seem to suit the 'sonnet's scanty plot of ground,' and an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.

In Vinculis. By Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, Author of The Wind and the Whirlwind, The Love Sonnets of Proteus, etc. etc. (Kegan Paul.)


Oscar Wilde