Alton Locke, Tailor and Poet : An Autobiography, by Charles Kingsley

Chapter 30.

Prison Thoughts.

I was alone in my cell.

Three years’ imprisonment! Thirty-six months! — one thousand and ninety-five days — and twenty-four whole hours in each of them! Well — I should sleep half the time: one-third at least. Perhaps I should not be able to sleep! To lie awake, and think — there! the thought was horrible — it was all horrible. To have three whole years cut out of my life, instead of having before me, as I had always as yet had, a mysterious Eldorado of new schemes and hopes, possible developments, possible triumphs, possible bliss — to have nothing, nothing before me but blank and stagnation, dead loss and waste: and then to go out again, and start once more where I had left off yesterday!

It should not be! I would not lose these years! I would show myself a man; they should feel my strength just when they fancied they had crushed me utterly! They might bury me, but I should rise again! — I should rise again more glorious, perhaps to be henceforth immortal, and live upon the lips of men. I would educate myself; I would read — what would I not read? These three years should be a time of sacred retirement and contemplation, as of Thebaid Anchorite, or Mahomet in his Arabian cave. I would write pamphlets that should thunder through the land, and make tyrants tremble on their thrones! All England — at least all crushed and suffering hearts — should break forth at my fiery words into one roar of indignant sympathy. No — I would write a poem; I would concentrate all my experience, my aspirations, all the hopes, and wrongs, and sorrows of the poor, into one garland of thorns — one immortal epic of suffering. What should I call it? And I set to work deliberately — such a thing is man — to think of a title.

I looked up, and my eye caught the close bars of the little window; and then came over me, for the first time, the full meaning of that word — Prison; that word which the rich use so lightly, knowing well that there is no chance, in these days, of there ever finding themselves in one; for the higher classes never break the laws — seeing that they have made them to fit themselves. Ay, I was in prison. I could not go out or come in at will. I was watched, commanded at every turn. I was a brute animal, a puppet, a doll, that children put away in a cupboard, and there it lies. And yet my whole soul was as wide, fierce, roving, struggling as ever. Horrible contradiction! The dreadful sense of helplessness, the crushing weight of necessity, seemed to choke me. The smooth white walls, the smooth white ceiling, seemed squeezing in closer and closer on me, and yet dilating into vast inane infinities, just as the merest knot of mould will transform itself, as one watches it, and nothing else, into enormous cliffs, long slopes of moor, and spurs of mountain-range. Oh, those smooth white walls and ceilings! If there had but been a print — a stain of dirt — a cobweb, to fleck their unbroken ghastliness! They stared at me, like grim, impassive, featureless formless fiends; all the more dreadful for their sleek, hypocritic cleanliness — purity as of a saint-inquisitor watching with spotless conscience the victim on the rack. They choked me — I gasped for breath, stretched out my arms, rolled shrieking on the floor — the narrow chequered glimpse of free blue sky, seen through the window, seemed to fade dimmer and dimmer, farther and farther off. I sprang up, as if to follow it — rushed to the bars, shook and wrenched at them with my thin, puny arms — and stood spell-bound, as I caught sight of the cathedral towers, standing out in grand repose against the horizontal fiery bars of sunset, like great angels at the gates of Paradise, watching in stately sorrow all the wailing and the wrong below. And beneath, beneath — the well-known roofs — Lillian’s home, and all its proud and happy memories! It was but a corner of a gable, a scrap of garden, that I could see beyond intervening roofs and trees — but could I mistake them? There was the very cedar-tree; I knew its dark pyramid but too well! There I had walked by her; there, just behind that envious group of chestnuts, she was now. The light was fading; it must be six o’clock; she must be in her room now, dressing herself for dinner, looking so beautiful! And as I gazed, and gazed, all the intervening objects became transparent and vanished before the intensity of my imagination. Were my poems in her room still? Perhaps she had thrown them away — the condemned rioter’s poems! Was she thinking of me? Yes — with horror and contempt. Well, at least she was thinking of me. And she would understand me at last — she must. Some day she would know all I had borne for love of her — the depth, the might, the purity of my adoration. She would see the world honouring me, in the day of my triumph, when I was appreciated at last; when I stood before the eyes of admiring men, a people’s singer, a king of human spirits, great with the rank which genius gives, then she would find out what a man had loved her: then she would know the honour, the privilege of a poet’s worship.

— But that trial scene.

Ay — that trial scene. That cold unmoved smile! — when she knew me, must have known me, not to be the wretch which those hired slanderers had called me. If she had cared for me — if she had a woman’s heart in her at all, any pity, any justice, would she not have spoken? Would she not have called on others to speak, and clear me of the calumny? Nonsense! Impossible! She — so frail, tender, retiring — how could she speak? How did I know that she had not felt for me? It was woman’s nature — duty, to conceal her feelings; perhaps that after all was the true explanation of that smile. Perhaps, too, she might have spoken — might be even now pleading for me in secret; not that I wished to be pardoned — not I— but it would be so delicious to have her, her, pleading for me! Perhaps — perhaps I might hear of her — from her! Surely she could not leave me here so close, without some token! And I actually listened, I know not how long, expecting the door to open, and a message to arrive; till, with my eyes riveted on that bit of gable, and my ears listening behind me like a hare’s in her form, to catch every sound in the ward outside, I fell fast asleep, and forgot all in the heavy dreamless torpor of utter mental and bodily exhaustion.

I was awakened by the opening of my cell door and the appearance of the turnkey.

“Well, young man, all right again? You’ve had a long nap; and no wonder, you’ve had a hard time of it lately; and a good lesson, to you, too.”

“How long have I slept? I do not recollect going to bed. And how came I to lie down without undressing?”

“I found you, at lock-up hours, asleep there kneeling on the chair, with your head on the window-sill; and a mercy you hadn’t tumbled off and broke your back. Now, look here. — You seems a civil sort of chap; and civil gets as civil gives with me. Only don’t you talk no politics. They ain’t no good to nobody, except the big ‘uns, wot gets their living thereby; and I should think you’d had dose enough on ’em to last for a month of Sundays. So just get yourself tidy, there’s a lad, and come along with me to chapel.”

I obeyed him, in that and other things; and I never received from him, or, indeed, from any one else there, aught but kindness. I have no complaint to make — but prison is prison. As for talking politics, I never, during those three years, exchanged as many sentences with any of my fellow-prisoners. What had I to say to them? Poachers and petty thieves — the scum of misery, ignorance, and rascality throughout the country. If my heart yearned toward them at times, it was generally shut close by the exclusive pride of superior intellect and knowledge. I considered it, as it was, a degradation to be classed with such; never asking myself how far I had brought that degradation on myself; and I loved to show my sense of injustice by walking, moody and silent, up and down a lonely corner of the yard; and at last contrived, under the plea of ill health (and, truly, I never was ten minutes without coughing), to confine myself entirely to my cell, and escape altogether the company of a class whom I despised, almost hated, as my betrayers, before whom I had cast away my pearls — questionable though they were according to Mackaye. Oh! there is in the intellectual workman’s heart, as in all others, the root of Pharisaism — the lust after self-glorifying superiority, on the ground of “genius.” We too are men; frail, selfish, proud as others. The days are past, thank God, when the “gentlemen button-makers,” used to insist on a separate tap-room from the mere “button-makers,” on the ground of earning a few more shillings per week. But we are not yet thorough democrats, my brothers; we do not yet utterly believe our own loud doctrine of equality; nor shall we till — But I must not anticipate the stages of my own experience.


I complain of no one, again I say — neither of judge, jury, gaolers, or chaplain. True, imprisonment was the worst possible remedy for my disease that could have been devised, if, as the new doctrine is, punishments are inflicted only to reform the criminal. What could prison do for me, but embitter and confirm all my prejudices? But I do not see what else they could have done with me while law is what it is, and perhaps ever will be; dealing with the overt acts of the poor, and never touching the subtler and more spiritual iniquities of the rich respectable. When shall we see a nation ruled, not by the law, by the Gospel; not in the letter which kills, but in the spirit which is love, forgiveness, life? When? God knows! And God does know.


But I did work, during those three years, for months at a time, steadily and severely; and with little profit, alas! to my temper of mind. I gorged my intellect, for I could do nothing else. The political questions which I longed to solve in some way or other, were tabooed by the well-meaning chaplain. He even forbid me a standard English work on political economy, which I had written to Mackaye to borrow for me; he was not so careful, it will be seen hereafter, with foreign books. He meant, of course, to keep my mind from what he considered at once useless and polluting; but the only effect of his method was, that all the doubts and questions remained, rankling and fierce, imperiously demanding my attention, and had to be solved by my own moody and soured meditations, warped and coloured by the strong sense of universal wrong.

Then he deluged me with tracts, weak and well-meaning, which informed me that “Christians,” being “not of this world,” had nothing to do with politics; and preached to me the divine right of kings, passive obedience to the powers — or impotences — that be, &c., &c., with such success as may be imagined. I opened them each, read a few sentences, and laid them by. “They were written by good men, no doubt; but men who had an interest in keeping up the present system;” at all events by men who knew nothing of my temptations, my creed, my unbelief; who saw all heaven and earth from a station antipodal to my own; I had simply nothing to do with them.

And yet, excellent man! pious, benignant, compassionate! God forbid that I should, in writing these words, allow myself a desire so base as that of disparaging thee! However thy words failed of their purpose, that bright, gentle, earnest face never appeared without bringing balm to the wounded spirit. Hadst thou not recalled me to humanity, those three years would have made a savage and madman of me. May God reward thee hereafter! Thou hast thy reward on earth in the gratitude of many a broken heart bound up, of drunkards sobered, thieves reclaimed, and outcasts taught to look for a paternal home denied them here on earth! While such thy deeds, what matter thine opinions?

But alas! (for the truth must be told, as a warning to those who have to face the educated working men,) his opinions did matter to himself. The good man laboured under the delusion, common enough, of choosing his favourite weapons from his weakest faculty; and the very inferiority of his intellect prevented him from seeing where his true strength lay. He would argue; he would try and convert me from scepticism by what seemed to him reasoning, the common figure of which was, what logicians, I believe, call begging the question; and the common method, what they call ignoratio elenchi— shooting at pigeons, while crows are the game desired. He always started by demanding my assent to the very question which lay at the bottom of my doubts. He would wrangle and wrestle blindly up and down, with tears of earnestness in his eyes, till he had lost his temper, as far as it was possible for one so angel-guarded as he seemed to be; and then, when he found himself confused, contradicting his own words, making concessions at which he shuddered, for the sake of gaining from me assents which he found out the next moment I understood in quite a different sense from his, he would suddenly shift his ground, and try to knock me down authoritatively with a single text of Scripture; when all the while I wanted proof that Scripture had any authority at all.

He carefully confined himself, too, throughout, to the dogmatic phraseology of the pulpit; while I either did not understand, or required justification for, the strange, far-fetched, technical meanings, which he attached to his expressions. If he would only have talked English! — if clergymen would only preach in English! — and then they wonder that their sermons have no effect! Their notion seems to be, as my good chaplain’s was, that the teacher is not to condescend to the scholar, much less to become all things to all men, if by any means he may save some; but that he has a right to demand that the scholar shall ascend to him before he is taught; that he shall raise himself up of his own strength into the teacher’s region of thought as well as feeling; to do for himself, in short, under penalty of being called an unbeliever, just what the preacher professes to do for him.

At last, he seemed dimly to discover that I could not acquiesce in his conclusions, while I denied his premises; and so he lent me, in an ill-starred moment, “Paley’s Evidences,” and some tracts of the last generation against Deism. I read them, and remained, as hundreds more have done, just where I was before.

“Was Paley,” I asked, “a really good and pious man?”

The really good and pious man hemmed and hawed.

“Because, if he was not, I can’t trust a page of his special pleading, let it look as clever as the whole Old Bailey in one.”

Besides, I never denied the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, or his apostles. I doubted the myths and doctrines, which I believed to have been gradually built up round the true story. The fact was, he was, like most of his class, “attacking extinct Satans,” fighting manfully against Voltaire, Volney, and Tom Paine; while I was fighting for Strauss, Hennell, and Emerson. And, at last, he gave me up for some weeks as a hopeless infidel, without ever having touched the points on which I disbelieved. He had never read Strauss — hardly even heard of him; and, till clergymen make up their minds to do that, and to answer Strauss also, they will, as he did, leave the heretic artisan just where they found him.

The bad effect which all this had on my mind may easily be conceived. I felt myself his intellectual superior. I tripped him up, played with him, made him expose his weaknesses, till I really began to despise him. May Heaven forgive me for it! But it was not till long afterwards that I began, on looking back, to see how worthless was any superior cleverness of mine before his superior moral and spiritual excellence. That was just what he would not let me see at the time. I was worshipping intellect, mere intellect; and thence arose my doubts; and he tried to conquer them by exciting the very faculty which had begotten them. When will the clergy learn that their strength is in action, and not in argument? If they are to reconvert the masses, it must be by noble deeds, as Carlyle says; “not by noisy theoretic laudation of a Church, but by silent practical demonstration of the Church.”


But, the reader may ask, where was your Bible all this time?

Yes — there was a Bible in my cell — and the chaplain read to me, both privately and in chapel, such portions of it as he thought suited my case, or rather his utterly-mistaken view thereof. But, to tell the truth, I cared not to read or listen. Was it not the book of the aristocrats — of kings and priests, passive obedience, and the slavery of the intellect? Had I been thrown under the influence of the more educated Independents in former years, I might have thought differently. They, at least, have contrived, with what logical consistence I know not, to reconcile orthodox Christianity with unflinching democratic opinions. But such was not my lot. My mother, as I said in my first chapter, had become a Baptist; because she believed that sect, and as I think rightly, to be the only one which logically and consistently carries out the Calvinistic theory; and now I looked back upon her delight in Gideon and Barak, Samson and Jehu, only as the mystic application of rare exceptions to the fanaticism of a chosen few — the elect — the saints, who, as the fifth-monarchy men held, were one day to rule the world with a rod of iron. And so I fell — willingly, alas! — into the vulgar belief about the politics of Scripture, common alike — strange unanimity! — to Infidel and Churchman. The great idea that the Bible is the history of mankind’s deliverance from all tyranny, outward as well as inward; of the Jews, as the one free constitutional people among a world of slaves and tyrants; of their ruin, as the righteous fruit of a voluntary return to despotism; of the New Testament, as the good news that freedom, brotherhood, and equality, once confided only to Judæa and to Greece, and dimly seen even there, was henceforth to be the right of all mankind, the law of all society — who was there to tell me that? Who is there now to go forth and tell it to the millions who have suffered, and doubted, and despaired like me, and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come? Again I ask — who will go forth and preach that Gospel, and save his native land?

But, as I said before, I read, and steadily. In the first place, I, for the first time in my life, studied Shakspeare throughout; and found out now the treasure which I had overlooked. I assure my readers I am not going to give a lecture on him here, as I was minded to have done. Only, as I am asking questions, who will write us a “People’s Commentary on Shakspeare”?

Then I waded, making copious notes and extracts, through the whole of Hume, and Hallam’s “Middle Ages,” and “Constitutional History,” and found them barren to my soul. When (to ask a third and last question) will some man, of the spirit of Carlyle — one who is not ashamed to acknowledge the intervention of a God, a Providence, even of a devil, in the affairs of men — arise, and write a “People’s History of England”?

Then I laboured long months at learning French, for the mere purpose of reading French political economy after my liberation. But at last, in my impatience, I wrote to Sandy to send me Proudhon and Louis Blanc, on the chance of their passing the good chaplain’s censorship — and behold, they passed! He had never heard their names! He was, I suspect, utterly ignorant of French, and afraid of exposing his ignorance by venturing to criticise. As it was, I was allowed peaceable possession of them till within a few months of my liberation, with such consequences as may be imagined: and then, to his unfeigned terror and horror, he discovered, in some periodical, that he had been leaving in my hands books which advocated “the destruction of property,” and therefore, in his eyes, of all which is moral or sacred in earth or heaven! I gave them up without a struggle, so really painful was the good soul’s concern and the reproaches which he heaped, not on me — he never reproached me in his life — but on himself, for having so neglected his duty.

Then I read hard for a few months at physical science — at Zoology and Botany, and threw it aside again in bitterness of heart. It was too bitter to be tantalized with the description of Nature’s wondrous forms, and I there a prisoner between those four white walls.

Then I set to work to write an autobiography — at least to commit to paper in regular order the most striking incidents and conversations which I could recollect, and which I had noted down as they occurred in my diary. From that source I have drawn nearly the whole of my history up to this point. For the rest I must trust to memory — and, indeed, the strange deeds and sufferings, and yet stranger revelations, of the last few months, have branded themselves deep enough upon my brain. I need not hope, or fear, that aught of them should slip my memory.


So went the weary time. Week after week, month after month, summer after summer, I scored the days off, like a lonely school boy, on the pages of a calendar; and day by day I went to my window, and knelt there, gazing at the gable and the cedar-tree. That was my only recreation. Sometimes, at first, my eyes used to wander over the wide prospect of rich lowlands, and farms, and hamlets, and I used to amuse myself with conjectures about the people who lived in them, and walked where they liked on God’s earth: but soon I hated to look at the country; its perpetual change and progress mocked the dreary sameness of my dungeon. It was bitter, maddening, to see the grey boughs grow green with leaves, and the green fade to autumnal yellow, and the grey boughs reappear again, and I still there! The dark sleeping fallows bloomed with emerald blades of corn, and then the corn grew deep and crisp, and blackened before the summer breeze, in “waves of shadow,” as Mr. Tennyson says in one of his most exquisite lyrics; and then the fields grew white to harvest day by day, and I saw the rows of sheaves rise one by one, and the carts crawling homeward under their load. I could almost hear the merry voices of the children round them — children that could go into the woods, and pick wild flowers, and I still there! No — I would look at nothing but the gable and the cedar-tree, and the tall cathedral towers; there was no change in them — they did not laugh at me.

But she who lived beneath them? Months and seasons crawled along, and yet no sign or hint of her! I was forgotten, forsaken! And yet I gazed, and gazed. I could not forget her; I could not forget what she had been to me. Eden was still there, though I was shut out from it for ever: and so, like a widower over the grave of her he loves, morning and evening I watched the gable and the cedar-tree.

And my cousin? Ah, that was the thought, the only thought, which made my life intolerable! What might he not be doing in the meantime? I knew his purpose, I knew his power. True, I had never seen a hint, a glance, which could have given him hope; but he had three whole years to win her in-three whole years, and I fettered, helpless, absent! “Fool! could I have won her if I had been free? At least, I would have tried: we would have fought it fairly out, on even ground; we would have seen which was the strongest, respectability and cunning, or the simplicity of genius. But now!”— And I tore at the bars of the window, and threw myself on the floor of my cell, and longed to die.

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 21:44