Charles Mackay

(1814-1889 / Scotland)

The Phamtoms Of St. Sepulchre - Poem by Charles Mackay

Didst ever see a hanging?'-'No, not one,
Nor ever wish to see such scandal done.
But once I saw a wretch condemn'd to die:
A lean-faced, bright-eyed youth, who made me sigh
At the recital of a dream he had.
He was not sane, and yet he was not mad:
Fit subject for a mesmerist he seem'd;
for when he slept, he saw; and when he dream'd
His visions were as palpable to him
As facts to us. My memory is dim
Upon his story, but I'll ne'er forget
The dream he told me, for it haunts me yet,
Impress'd upon me by his earnest faith
that 'twas no vision, but a sight which Death
Open'd his eyes to see,-an actual glimpse
Into the world of spectres and of imps
Vouchsafed to him on threshold of the grave.
List! and I'll give it in the words he gave:

''Ay, you may think that I am crazed,
But what I saw, that did I see.
These walls are thick, my brain is sick,
And yet mine eyes saw lucidly.
Through the joists and through the stones
I could look as through a glass:
And, from this dungeon damp and cold,
I watch'd the motley people pass.
All day long, rapid and strong,
Roll'd to and fro the living stream;
But in the night I saw a sight
I cannot think it was a dream.

''Old St. Sepulchre's bell will toll
At eight to-morrow for my soul;
And thousands, not much better than I,
Will throng around to see me die;
And many will bless their happy fate
That they ne'er fell from their high estate,
Or did such deed as I have done;
Though, from the rise to the set of sun,
They cheat their neighbours all their days,
And gather gold in slimy ways.
But my soul feels strong, and my sight grows clear,
As my death-hour approaches near,
And in its presence I will tell
The very truth, as it befell.

''The snow lies thick on the house-tops cold,
Shrill and keen the March winds blow;
The rank grass of the churchyard mould
Is cover'd o'er with drifted snow;
The graves in old St. Sepulchre's yard
Were white last night when I look'd forth,
And the sharp clear stars seem'd to dance in the sky,
Rock'd by the fierce winds of the north.

''The houses dull seem'd numb with frost,
The streets seem'd wider than of yore,
Aod the straggling passengers trod, like ghost,
Silently on the pathway frore;
When I look'd through that churchyard rail,
And thought of the bell that should ring my doom,
And saW three women, sad and pale,
Sitting together on a tomb.

''A fearful sight it was to see,
As up they rose and look'd at me.
Sunken were their cheeks and eyes;
Blue-cold were their feet, and bare;
Lean and yellow were their hands;
Long and scanty was their hair;
And round their necks I saw the ropes
Deftly knotted, tighly drawn;
And knew they were not things of earth,
Or creatures that could face the dawn.

''Seen dimly in the uncertain light,
They multiplied upon my sight;
And things like men and women sprung
Shapes of those who had been hung
From the rank and clammy ground.
I counted them-I knew them all,
Each with its rope around its neck,
Marshall'd by the churchyard wall.
The stiff policeman, passing along,
Saw them not, nor made delay;
A reeling bacchanal, shouting a song,
Look'd at the clock and went his way;
A troop of girls with painted cheeks,
Laughing and yelling in drunken glee,
Pass'd like a gust, and never look'd
At the sight so palpable to me.
I saw them-heard them-felt their breath
Musty and raw and damp as death!

''These women three, these fearful shapes,
Look'd at me through Newgate stone,
And raised their fingers, skinny and lank,
Whispering low in under-tone:
'His hour draws near,-he's one of us,
His gibbet is built,-his noose is tied;
They have put his name on the coffin-lid:
The law of blood shall be satisfied.
He shall rest with us, and his name shall be
A by-word and a mockery.'

''I whisper'd to one, 'What hast thou done?'
She answer'd, whispering, and I heard
Although a chime rang at the time
Every sentence, every word,
Clear above the pealing bells:
'I was mad, and slew my child;
Better than life, God knows, I loved it;
But pain and hunger drove me wild,
Scorn and hunger, and grief and care;
And I slew it in my despair.
And for this deed tbey raised the gibbet;
For this deed the noose they tied;
And I hung and swung in the sight of men,
And the law of blood was satisfied.'

''I said to the second, 'What didst thou?'
Her keen eyes flash'd unearthly shine.
'I married a youth when I was young,
And thought all happiness was mine;
But they stole him from me to fight the French;
And I was left in the world alone.
To beg or steal, to live or die,
Robb'd of my stay, my all, my own.
England stole my lord from me,
I stole a ribbon, was caught and tried;
And I hung and swung in the sight of men,
And the law of blood was satisfied.'

''I said to the third, 'What crime was thine?'
'Crime!' she auswer'd, in accents meek,
'The babe that sucks at its mother's breast,
And smiles with its little dimpled cheek,
Is not more innocent than I.
But truth was feeble,-error was strong;
And guiltless of a deed of shame,
Men's justice did me cruel wrong.
They would not hear my truthful words:
They thought me fill'd with stubborn pride;
And I hung and swung in the sight of men,
And the law of blood was satisfied.'

''Then one and all, by that churchyard wall,
Raised their skinny hands at me;
Their voices mingling like the sound
Of rustling leaves in a withering tree:
'His hour has come, he's one of us;
His gibbet is built, his noose is tied;
His knell shall ring, and his corpse shall swing,
And the law of blood shall be satisfied.'

''They vanish'd! I saw them, one by one,
With their bare blue feet on the drifted snow
Sink like a thaw, when the sun is up,
To their wormy solitudes below.
Though you may deem this was a dream,
My facts are tangible facts to me;
For the sight glows clear as death draws near
And looks into futurity.''


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Poem Submitted: Thursday, October 18, 2012



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