Scribbles on J.B. Bullen’s The Pre-Raphaelite Body

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In this book, Bullen suggests the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood created an avant-garde strain which was later joined by poetry and literature. The aim of this book is to examine the interaction of word and image, with particular attention given to how it merged into aestheticism. The period covered by the book is 1850 – 1880. Bullen’s framework and interpretation pivots around Pre-Raphaelite bodies being a focus for both public and private pleasure, and as the blurb mentions it delves into Catholicism, cholera, and psycho-sexual diseases.

The acceptance and rejection of Pre-Raphaelite visual works depends largely on a small body of critics’ interpretative writing. Bullen’s work is not just situated in perception theory but in anthropology, sociological theory and feminist criticism. This moves the criticism away from artistic influence toward gender, power, and the nature of human desire.

Bullen is interested in temporal evaluation of the object (art criticism) and locating the objects within its historical and cultural context (as one would for Dickens). He also takes into account the totemic powers of religion, politics etc. (although less so). These approaches define acceptance and show that (critical) responses are not aesthetic in origin. Bullen’s work is situated in the contemporary unease of the body as it is distorted; the language of art criticism comes under stress here.

The main points are as follows:

  • Distortion – Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents…

Language from discourses that aren’t aesthetic, some resonating theological or even pathological meanings / interpretations.

  • Re-inscription of flesh in paintings through fallen women, flawed women. Female bodies are used as a vehicle to express between bourgeois control and libido, Bullen uses the poem ‘Jenny’ and the painting Bocca Baciata by Rossetti to discuss this issue.
  • Flesh and spirit. Self-debating with the self – interior monologue is desirable but dangerous. Bullen seeks to examine the private world, and the issues surrounding the self.
  • Public world. The ‘Fleshly School’, the androgyny of Burne-Jones and poetry of Swinburne (or the poetry of his poems).

Bullen considers the hostile criticism of Pre-Raphaelite works drew upon a number of discoursal centred languages of religion and its more Hebraic extremes. Here he refers to Cherry and Pollock as he builds on their work (in preference to Clark and Berger). Religion is less of a feature of this book, rather Bullen draws on sexual, political responses to the body.

Bullen suggests the variable and complex roles assigned to women, e.g. she ‘is’ and ‘is not’, she ‘has’ and ‘has not’. Woman ‘both is, and is not, accessible; she both has and has not a penetrative phallus’. Bullen also refers to Fazio’s Mistress, as part of his consideration of the mirror as a reflective device for these issues, or rather their ‘inanimate surface’ permitting a controlled reflection.

In amongst the thread of these gender, feminist, social readings, Bullen also stresses the pictorial, e.g. he notes Sir Charles Bell’s analysis of body language in The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression influenced the Pre-Raphaelite delineation of heads.

*                *              *

J.B. Bullen The Pre-Raphaelite Body Fear and Desire (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)

Pre-Raphaelitism was the first avant-garde movement in Britain. It shocked its first audience, and as it modulated into Aestheticism it continued to disturb the British public. This interdisciplinary study traces the sources of this critical reaction to the representation of the body in painting and poetry from the work of Millais and Morris to that of Rossetti and Burne-Jones. The book also explores how reactions were conditioned by such late nineteenth-century anxieties as fear of cholera and hatred of Catholicism, fascination with the fallen woman, horror at the `shrieking sisterhood’ of emancipated women, and even the terror of psycho-sexual diseases.

Sweetness and Light

The pursuit of perfection, then, is the pursuit of sweetness and light. He who works for sweetness works in the end for light also; he who works for light works in the end for sweetness also. But he who works for sweetness and light united, works to make reason and the will of God prevail. He who works for machinery, he who works for hatred, works only for confusion. Culture looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has but one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light. Yes, it has one yet greater! — the passion for making them prevail. It is not satisfied till we all come to a perfect man; it knows that the sweetness and light of the few must be imperfect until the raw and unkindled masses of humanity are touched with sweetness and light.


Stokes, Passing Train (1890)

Taken from Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (first published London: Smith, Elder & Co, 1869)

In Prison with Oscar Wilde

Professor Peter Stoneley, from Reading University, gave a talk entitled ‘In Prison with Oscar Wilde’ as part of the Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison organised by Art Angel. Other notable names giving lectures include Professor Anna Gruetzner Robins.

Stoneley’s talk was focused on Wilde’s time in jail and those he did ‘stir’ with (stir being a derivative of the Latin for prison, ‘sturiben’, e.g. meaning to be imprisoned, to be ‘doing time’). The talk took place in Reading’s chapel which was arranged with rather lovely wooden chapel seats. One could be forgiven for thinking the seats were representative of the chapel under prison times, however, they are a far cry. Not only is there light and heating (at least until the prison is sold off and demolished for housing development, thanks to Michael Gove), but there is even a tennis court marked out on the floor. Reading’s more recent prisoners clearly had a different experience to Wilde. You only have to glance at the walls, where you will see a shadow rising diagonally, to get an insight into the real prison experience.

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Pentonville separation chapel

Part of Stoneley’s talk was about the separation and isolation of prisoners, and the chapel was the most callous and coldhearted, unchristian of separations. Soulless, lacking in humanity, and devoid of any so-called Christian mission. The chapel seats would have been wooden in Wilde’s time and arranged diagonally as mentioned, they were designed to prevent communication between inmates. There are no images of Reading Gaol’s chapel from the nineteenth century but a comparative example can be found in images of Pentonville’s chapel, and for a real life taste of the experience you may wish to visit Lincoln’s prison chapel.

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Lincoln Prison Chapel

The prisoners would have walked into the chapel seats one after another, presumably filing in under the watchful eye of the prison warder. Through a small ‘door’ you entered into your extremely tight cubicle: once in your seat you were essentially boxed in, with a wooden panel dividing you from your fellow inmate. Talking would have been banned and communication impossible.

You were not able to look around, to make eye contact, to reach out in any way emotionally or physically to anyone. You were probably wearing a scotch cap which further separated you from the eyes of those around you. Prison was not just removal from society, it was removal from humanity.

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Prisoners in Pentonville wearing the ‘Scotch Cap’

Wilde’s writing, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, De Profundis, and the numerous letters he wrote to the newspapers upon his release, sought to make people break down these partitions. Wilde’s success in this is debatable and his language remained somewhat ‘us’ and ‘them’ at least when he recognised it suited his audience, but nonetheless, Wilde encouraged people to see beyond the statistics or the label of criminal  to see the face of the face-less, and to see their fate as individual and human. Wilde sought, in some small way (I confess I am less generous in my appraisal of Wilde than Stoneley appeared to be) to give the working criminal classes a voice.

Stoneley sought to illuminate the type of individuals Wilde was in prison with. In order to present his research, Stoneley gave a brief history of events leading up to Wilde’s imprisonment, which I shall further condense here.

From being a ‘dazzling celebrity’ Wilde’s downfall was spectacularly quick; he was sentenced on the 28th May, 1895 to two years hard labour for ‘Acts of Gross Indecency’.  Initially sent to Newgate, he then went to Pentonville, then Wandsworth before he was moved to Reading Gaol on the 20th November, 1895. This was a Home Office decision, seemingly taken to keep Wilde alive or rather as an attempt to reduce the chances of Wilde dying whilst in prison. Stoneley suggested this was for both publicity’s sake and for the establishment to avoid shame – the potential shame should Wilde have died – however, I am not sure ‘shame’ was really a feature of the Home Office’s language. Wilde was transferred back to Pentonville for his release on 19th May 1897, so effectively eighteen months (three quarters of his sentence) was spent at Reading Gaol in Cell C.3.3

The Victorian prison system sought to keep prisoners in isolation so they could reflect on their crimes, with only a brief period during the day for exercise in the yard, and time to attend chapel, which was, as we have seen already, hardly a spiritually uplifting experience. Stoneley’s view was a little more generous than I am on this issue: he thought that chapel could have given some comfort to some. Let us hope so. The brutality of the prison system seems overwhelming, which Stoneley illustrated through comparison of the exterior of Reading Gaol, which he described as looking more like an ‘Elizabethan Manor’, and his description of life inside. The actual building of the gaol was over budget and architecturally over the top, considering its purpose. It had originally been built with plumbed sanitation but the fear of communication between prisoners was so great, that the plumbing system was ripped out. How could you easily control a prison population if they were communicating by tapping on the pipes at night? The consequential lack of sanitation meant the prison resorted to slop buckets, resulting in poor hygiene and general ill-health.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.

(Extract from Reading Gaol, see entire poem here).

This poor sanitation was on top of the labour which was more torture than anything and described as such by Wilde, who made reference to his scarred and broken fingers. The isolation and labour resulted in extremely poor mental health of many prisoners and according to Henry Mayhew there was a doubling of insanity in prisoners. Stoneley’s archive research included examination of ‘The Visiting Committee’ which recorded similar statistics to Mayhew, and Wilde himself gave one particular example which Stoneley had managed to trace.

Wilde reported after his release that one man had been lashed twenty four times. Wilde described the man in such a manner that he clearly thought the man was going mad. Stoneley’s research demonstrated Wilde was right not only in his report but in his assessment of the man’s state of mind. The prisoner, Edward Prince, did get lashed for ‘malingering’ and eventually the minutes show, he ended up in Moulsford Asylum.

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Wilde was put on light labour and gardening duties, and was even allowed to put brown paper on books, the task which his wife Constance described as meaning ‘at least he was able to hold books in his hands’. These limited sympathetic improvements to Wilde’s time in jail were sanctioned by a sympathetic man in the judiciary (apologies, I forget who now). Wilde still endured hard labour and his ill-treatment was such that he damaged his ear during a fall which, despite professional care having been given, ultimately contributed to Wilde’s death from cerebral meningitis, in 1900.

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Hard labour

The systematic partitioning of prisoners caused extreme and terrible stress upon people’s mental health. Wilde’s own words describe the situation:

…while one may bear up against the monotonous hardships and relentless discipline of an English prison: endure with apathy the unceasing shame and the daily degradation: and grow callous even to that hideous grotesqueness of life that robs sorrow of all its dignity, and takes from pain its power of purification: still, the complete isolation from everything that is humane and humanising plunges one deeper and deeper into the very mire of madness, and the horrible silence, to which one is, as it were, eternally condemned, concentrates the mind on all that one longs to loathe, and creates those insane moods from which one desires to be free, creates them and makes them permanent’.

And yet some prisoners returned, again and again to jail. Stoneley had resourced some fascinating statistics which I include below:

Nominal Register for November 1893 : 78 admissions, 72 men, 6 women.

Of the 73 for whom an education level was given:

Well or superior – 13

Imperfect – 51

Read (only) – 3

Nil – 5

These figures are not representative of nineteenth century literacy rates, for these declined significantly in the late nineteenth century.

Of the 76 for whom an occupation was given:

Labourers – 32

Other working class occupations – 40

Clerical – 4


Vast majority of sentences were between 7 – 15 days. The crimes varied:

Petty theft – 23

Drunk and disorderly – 10

Trespassing for game – 0

Refusing to work in workhouse – 8

Assault – 7

Desertion – 4

Obscene language – 4

Attempt to procure under false pretences – 3

Begging – 3

Stoneley asked the obvious question: was prison an improvement for some? Stoneley had noted that one prisoner had been sentenced to jail time for sleeping in someone’s barn. Sleeping rough (or ‘lodging out’ as it was called) was more prevalent in winter time, as was the stealing of boots, and yet people did it knowingly risking jail. Many of the crimes are rather petty, and yet jail, despite its horrific brutality, was no deterrent; Wilde said ‘Crime in England is rarely the result of sin. It is nearly always the result of starvation’. Begging or stealing food were necessities, not choices. Jail time was perhaps a well-judged risk for some, after all, prison offered a bed and regular food (which post 1815 was funded locally, rather than being paid for by the prisoner). Food was reliably awful (the basic diet consisted of bread, cheese, gruel and suet) but it was present.

Photography is one clue in unravelling the recidivism of prisoners, for mugshots were only taken of prisoners the officials assumed were likely to be habitual criminals.  Photography was an expensive technology so it had to be used sparingly, and prisons were continually, as now, finding ways of reducing their costs. Photographing known criminals aided identification, particular for adults, and although there are far fewer photographs of children (perhaps because children change more facially) the photographs did also help identify them if they re-entered jail (children who could also easily change name and location).

Jane Farrell, was only 12 years old when she stole some boots. She was sentenced to 10 days of hard labour in Newcastle prison.

Prisons like Reading housed children, and some of the archives record children being jailed for stealing bread, gravy, and soup. Stoneley had noted two interesting examples:

John Darling – an eighteen year old who had been sentenced to one month hard labour for stealing a goldfinch and a canary.

Prudence L. Ford (photographed on the 01/07/92) was sentenced to seven days for stealing boots.

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Victorian child prisoners

A prison warder, Martin, who befriended Wilde, was sacked for giving one child biscuits. The children were often known to cry throughout the night in the cold cells, which Wilde wrote about in a Letter to The Daily Chronicle.

To The Editor, The Daily Chronicle, Friday 28th May 1897.

Sir, I learn with great regret, through the columns of your paper, that the warder Martin, of Reading Prison, has been dismissed by the Prison Commissioners for having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child. I saw the three children myself on Monday preceding my release. They had just been convicted and were standing in a row in the central hall in their prison dress, carrying their sheets under the arms, previous to their being sent to the cells allotted to them.

They were quite small children, the youngest — the one to whom the warder gave the biscuits — being a tiny little chap, for whom they had evidently been unable to find clothes small enough to fit. I had, of course, seen many children in prison during the two years during which I was myself confined. Wandsworth Prison, especially, contained always a large number of children. But the little child I saw on the afternoon of Monday the 17th at Reading, was tinier than any one of them.

I need not say how utterly distressed I was to see these children at Reading, for I knew the treatment in store for them. The cruelty that is practised by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible, except to those who have witnessed it and are aware of the brutality of the system.

John Greening, aged 11, stole some gooseberries. He was sentenced to one month hard labour and five years at reform school.

Martin was clearly a compassionate man, for he also gave Wilde biscuits, cocoa, and newspapers – none of which were permitted.

Wilde’s relationships with the other inmates was limited, as already discussed contact was nigh on impossible / forbidden (the scotch cap being worn frequently in order to further hide identities and to de-personalise).

Wilde nonetheless, ‘liked’ his ‘pals’ and presumably the limited contact, smile, or friendly face would have bore a significance that cannot be exaggerated in its power in such an environment. Wilde saw these strangers as friends. Stoneley, in referring to his post-prison reminiscences, seemed to interpret Wilde’s affection for these men as representative of comradeship and equality, whilst failing to mention Wilde had always had an affection for the lower working, criminal, classes. Such were the young boys he bought (one way or another) during his time as a ‘dazzling celebrity’. The balance of power had shifted but it seems Wilde was surprised to discover he was no different to the men he met in prison. In jail, Wilde was just another prisoner, one who inhabited cell C.3.3. (renumbered to C.2.2. since Wilde’s time).

As far as can be concluded, Wilde was the only man in Reading Gaol for ‘gross indecency’ during his incarceration but the crime itself was not unheard of. Stoneley pondered whether Wilde would have been marked out as being gay to prisoners or warders but I think it seems unlikely. I wonder if our own relationship with the aphoristic glamorous playwright means we prefer to view him in this way, whereas the reality was the poor people who had to steal gravy for sustenance would have had very little interest or appetite for such men as Wilde – unless it had been in order to profit, by means fair or foul. Wilde may have been the ‘Somdomite’ of Cadogan Hotel, but in prison he was presumably just another prisoner. This would not have been the same for the warders or officials though, as Martin’s kindness testaments.

Wilde’s ‘crime’ was well publicised but it was partly, surely, his stupidity and culpability in his own downfall which made the case so well documented. Wilde’s demise was a self-driven car crash, a tragedy of love, arrogance, and blindness. Stoneley described Bosie ‘as the man who destroyed Wilde’s life’ but I take issue with this laying of the blame at Bosie’s hands. Wilde was an intelligent well educated man who knew the risks and still undertook to take the Marquis of Queensberry to court for libel. Wilde, not Bosie, did this. I don’t doubt for a moment that Bosie made things difficult, seemingly impossible, but Wilde’s demise was his own responsibility. He misjudged and paid the price.

Albert Kipling (or perhaps Kipping) had also been sentenced to hard labour, for ‘buggery’. Kipling did get released early on petition, unlike Wilde, but it is important to note that the sentence was not rare for the crime.

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Henry Bushnell

Wilde’s response to these men seems rather typical of him. One rather attractive man, Henry Bushnell (variously called Henry Harry or Bushell etc. in the records) seems to have caught Wilde’s eye and although a regular in Reading, he seemed to have been perhaps a little more calculating than Wilde ever managed. Stoneley concluded Wilde had been attracted (saying it seemed ‘evident’) to Bushnell who was a mere five foot two inches, and was first placed in jail for burglary, although at the time Wilde was incarcerated, Bushnell was inside for stealing nuts off a tree.

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Another mugshot of Henry Bushnell

Bushnell seems to have graduated out of trouble, and worked as a gardener until his death at the fine old age of 74. Stoneley had tracked many photographs of Bushnell in the archives and he seemed to fare surprisingly well, not particularly ageing or looking ill in any of the images displayed. The latest photo Stoneley showed merely captured Bushnell with a thick dark beard, and still with an obviously twinkling eye. He looked mid-thirties I would have said. Bushnell obviously lived precariously though, so much so, that Wilde even sent him money after he (Wilde) was released from jail.  Ironic, when Wilde died penniless himself.

Plaque commemorating Wilde’s place of death at the Hôtel d’Alsace, now L’Hôtel

Stoneley’s talk concluded with reference to The Ballad of Reading Gaol, asking why a ‘ballad’ and examining the fraternal language within the poem. Wilde used ‘us’ and ‘we’, even wanting The Ballad of Reading Gaol to be printed in Reynolds Paper which he knew was most popular with the working (criminal) classes of which Wilde was now a member: ‘I shall be read by my peers – a new experience for me’. As an aside, Stoneley made little of Wilde’s change of diction when he wrote to The Chronicle which adopted a language that distanced himself from his new found ‘peers’.

Regardless of this petty details and quibbles, Wilde’s time in jail enriched his literature albeit it destroyed his health. We are the better for Wilde’s most powerful text De Profundis, but we have to acknowledge that society lost a great writer through the gravely unfortunate and petty-minded laws concerning an individual’s sexual practice. We cannot say prison was the making of Wilde, for on his release he ended up still entangled with Bosie, but had he lived, he seemed to have developed a new gravitas which would no doubt would have inspired few air born passing quips, and would have delivered more universal texts, perhaps more of the quality of De Profundis. Who knows perhaps it would have made his voice more political.

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Wilde in Rome, post his release, 1900

I will conclude with Wilde’s own remarks upon his time in prison:

But the only really humanising influence in prison is the influence of the prisoners. Their cheerfulness under terrible circumstances, their sympathy for each other, their humility, their gentleness, their pleasant smiles of greeting when they meet each other, their complete acquiescence in their punishments are all quite wonderful, and I myself learnt many sound lessons from them.



Ai Weiwei’s Prison Itinerary

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My simple yet rigorous daily schedule was as follows:

  • Every morning I got up at 6:30am, after which I had twenty minutes to wash, dress, and brush my teeth.
  • 7:30am was morning exercises, which consisted of walking back and forth across the six large floor-tiles of my room. My every movement was performed while clinched between two policemen. They maintained a constant distance of 80 centimeters from me – no more, no less.
  • 7:40am was breakfast: two small plastic bags of milk, an egg, and one and a half steamed buns. Three kinds of pickled vegetables and cold dishes. I was given twenty minutes to eat, including washing up afterwards.
  • At 8am, after a change of guards, I had an hour of exercise time: repetitive pacing.
  • From 9am to 11:40am Reflection time. I was interrogated about my “problems”.
  • Lunch was a half hour from 11:40am to 12:10pm. After lunch was another hour of exercise: pacing.
  • 1:30pm to 2:30pm: afternoon nap.
  • 2:30pm to 5:40pm: the second round of interrogation about my “problems”.
  • 5:40pm was dinner. They served my food to me in a plastic box. I was given a spoon, but no chopsticks.
  • 6pm: Another hour of exercise.
  • 7pm to 9pm was study time, during which I was meant to write confessions.
  • 9pm: half an hour of exercise.
  • After 9:30pm I could reserve shower time, upon request to the duty guard. Everyday I spent ten minutes washing that day’s socks and underwear, taking a shower afterwards. Twenty minutes altogether, all of it spent with a soldier standing guard very near by.
  • At 10pm, the guard on duty gave the punctual order to get in bed and lie down.

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Read Weiwei’s ‘Letter of Separation’ to his young son, part of the Art Angel Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison project, here.


The Ballad of Reading Gaol


He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
“That fellow’s got to swing”.

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved
And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty place

He does not sit with silent men
Who watch him night and day;
Who watch him when he tries to weep,
And when he tries to pray;
Who watch him lest himself should rob
The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see
Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste
To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks
Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst
That sands one’s throat, before
The hangman with his gardener’s gloves
Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear
The Burial Office read,
Nor, while the terror of his soul
Tells him he is not dead,
Cross his own coffin, as he moves
Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air
Through a little roof of glass;
He does not pray with lips of clay
For his agony to pass;
Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
The kiss of Caiaphas.


Six weeks our guardsman walked the yard,
In a suit of shabby grey:
His cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay,
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every wandering cloud that trailed
Its raveled fleeces by.

He did not wring his hands, as do
Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain,
Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
The man who had to swing.

And strange it was to see him pass
With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
Had such a debt to pay.

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
With its adder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is that seat of grace
For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer’s collar take
His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins
When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
To dance upon the air!

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

At last the dead man walked no more
Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
In the black dock’s dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
In God’s sweet world again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other’s way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men were we:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.


In Debtors’ Yard the stones are hard,
And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched
His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon
The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called
And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
The hangman’s hands were near.

But why he said so strange a thing
No Warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher’s doom
Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try
To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
Pent up in Murderers’ Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
Could help a brother’s soul?

With slouch and swing around the ring
We trod the Fool’s Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
The Devil’s Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day
Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the yellow hole
Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
To the thirsty asphalte ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
Went shuffling through the gloom
And each man trembled as he crept
Into his numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors
Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams
In a pleasant meadow-land,
The watcher watched him as he slept,
And could not understand
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
With a hangman close at hand?

But there is no sleep when men must weep
Who never yet have wept:
So we—the fool, the fraud, the knave—
That endless vigil kept,
And through each brain on hands of pain
Another’s terror crept.

Alas! it is a fearful thing
To feel another’s guilt!
For, right within, the sword of Sin
Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
And as molten lead were the tears we shed
For the blood we had not spilt.

The Warders with their shoes of felt
Crept by each padlocked door,
And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
Grey figures on the floor,
And wondered why men knelt to pray
Who never prayed before.

All through the night we knelt and prayed,
Mad mourners of a corpse!
The troubled plumes of midnight were
The plumes upon a hearse:
And bitter wine upon a sponge
Was the savior of Remorse.

The cock crew, the red cock crew,
But never came the day:
And crooked shape of Terror crouched,
In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, they glided fast,
Like travellers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,
Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
They trod a saraband:
And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,
They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and loud they sang,
For they sang to wake the dead.

“Oho!”they cried, “The world is wide,
But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
In the secret House of Shame.”

No things of air these antics were
That frolicked with such glee:
To men whose lives were held in gyves,
And whose feet might not go free,
Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
Some wheeled in smirking pairs:
With the mincing step of demirep
Some sidled up the stairs:
And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,
But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning-steel
We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars
Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
God’s dreadful dawn was red.

At six o’clock we cleaned our cells,
At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
Are all the gallows’ need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.

For Man’s grim Justice goes its way,
And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:
Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,
Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man’s heart beat thick and quick
Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock
Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
From a leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things
In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman’s snare
Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so
That he gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.


There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain’s heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
And then they rang the bell,
And the Warders with their jingling keys
Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God’s sweet air we went,
But not in wonted way,
For this man’s face was white with fear,
And that man’s face was grey,
And I never saw sad men who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.

But there were those amongst us all
Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived
Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time
Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud,
And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood
And makes it bleed in vain!

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
With crooked arrows starred,
Silently we went round and round
The slippery asphalte yard;
Silently we went round and round,
And no man spoke a word.

Silently we went round and round,
And through each hollow mind
The memory of dreadful things
Rushed like a dreadful wind,
And Horror stalked before each man,
And terror crept behind.

The Warders strutted up and down,
And kept their herd of brutes,
Their uniforms were spick and span,
And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at
By the quicklime on their boots.

For where a grave had opened wide,
There was no grave at all:
Only a stretch of mud and sand
By the hideous prison-wall,
And a little heap of burning lime,
That the man should have his pall.

For he has a pall, this wretched man,
Such as few men can claim:
Deep down below a prison-yard,
Naked for greater shame,
He lies, with fetters on each foot,
Wrapt in a sheet of flame!

And all the while the burning lime
Eats flesh and bone away,
It eats the brittle bone by night,
And the soft flesh by the day,
It eats the flesh and bones by turns,
But it eats the heart alway.

For three long years they will not sow
Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
With unreproachful stare.

They think a murderer’s heart would taint
Each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God’s kindly earth
Is kindlier than men know,
And the red rose would but blow more red,
The white rose whiter blow.

Out of his mouth a red, red rose!
Out of his heart a white!
For who can say by what strange way,
Christ brings his will to light,
Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore
Bloomed in the great Pope’s sight?

But neither milk-white rose nor red
May bloom in prison air;
The shard, the pebble, and the flint,
Are what they give us there:
For flowers have been known to heal
A common man’s despair.

So never will wine-red rose or white,
Petal by petal, fall
On that stretch of mud and sand that lies
By the hideous prison-wall,
To tell the men who tramp the yard
That God’s Son died for all.

Yet though the hideous prison-wall
Still hems him round and round,
And a spirit man not walk by night
That is with fetters bound,
And a spirit may not weep that lies
In such unholy ground,

He is at peace—this wretched man—
At peace, or will be soon:
There is no thing to make him mad,
Nor does Terror walk at noon,
For the lampless Earth in which he lies
Has neither Sun nor Moon.

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
They did not even toll
A requiem that might have brought
Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
And hid him in a hole.

They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
And gave him to the flies;
They mocked the swollen purple throat
And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
In which their convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.

Yet all is well; he has but passed
To Life’s appointed bourne:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.


I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother’s life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.

This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair

For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.

The brackish water that we drink
Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
Wild-eyed and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
Becomes one’s heart by night.

With midnight always in one’s heart,
And twilight in one’s cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
With soul and body marred.

And thus we rust Life’s iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God’s eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper’s house
With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat.
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul’s strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ’s snow-white seal.


In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

How like an Angel

I have of late, (but wherefore I know not) lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed, it goes so heavily with my disposition; that this goodly frame the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’er hanging firmament, this majestical roof, fretted with golden fire: why, it appeareth no other thing to me, than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. ‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me; no, nor Woman neither…


Hamlet Act 2: Scene 2

Isadora Duncan

“I have the right to choose the father of my own children,” Isadora Duncan declared.

She then wrote to George Bernard Shaw, asking him ‘Will you be the father of my next child? A combination of my beauty and your brains would startle the world’.

Shaw with his usual aplomb replied ‘I must decline your offer with thanks, for the child might have my beauty and your brains’.

Image result for g.b. shaw