Ambrose Bierce

(24 June 1842 - 26 December 1913 / Horse Cave Creek, Ohio)

An Alibi - Poem by Ambrose Bierce

A famous journalist, who long
Had told the great unheaded throng
Whate'er they thought, by day or night.
Was true as Holy Writ, and right,
Was caught in-well, on second thought,
It is enough that he was caught,
And being thrown in jail became
The fuel of a public flame.

'_Vox populi vox Dei_,' said
The jailer. Inxling bent his head
Without remark: that motto good
In bold-faced type had always stood
Above the columns where his pen
Had rioted in praise of men
And all they said-provided he
Was sure they mostly did agree.
Meanwhile a sharp and bitter strife
To take, or save, the culprit's life
Or liberty (which, I suppose,
Was much the same to him) arose
Outside. The journal that his pen
Adorned denounced his crime-but then
Its editor in secret tried
To have the indictment set aside.
The opposition papers swore
His father was a rogue before,
And all his wife's relations were
Like him and similar to her.
They begged their readers to subscribe
A dollar each to make a bribe
That any Judge would feel was large
Enough to prove the gravest charge
Unless, it might be, the defense
Put up superior evidence.
The law's traditional delay
Was all too short: the trial day
Dawned red and menacing. The Judge
Sat on the Bench and wouldn't budge,
And all the motions counsel made
Could not move _him_-and there he stayed.
'The case must now proceed,' he said,
'While I am just in heart and head,
It happens-as, indeed, it ought-
Both sides with equal sums have bought
My favor: I can try the cause
Impartially.' (Prolonged applause.)

The prisoner was now arraigned
And said that he was greatly pained
To be suspected-_he_, whose pen
Had charged so many other men
With crimes and misdemeanors! 'Why,'
He said, a tear in either eye,
'If men who live by crying out
'Stop thief!' are not themselves from doubt
Of their integrity exempt,
Let all forego the vain attempt
To make a reputation! Sir,
I'm innocent, and I demur.'
Whereat a thousand voices cried
Amain he manifestly lied-
_Vox populi_ as loudly roared
As bull by _picadores_ gored,
In his own coin receiving pay
To make a Spanish holiday.

The jury-twelve good men and true
Were then sworn in to see it through,
And each made solemn oath that he
As any babe unborn was free
From prejudice, opinion, thought,
Respectability, brains-aught
That could disqualify; and some
Explained that they were deaf and dumb.
A better twelve, his Honor said,
Was rare, except among the dead.
The witnesses were called and sworn.
The tales they told made angels mourn,
And the Good Book they'd kissed became
Red with the consciousness of shame.

Whenever one of them approached
The truth, 'That witness wasn't coached,
Your Honor!' cried the lawyers both.
'Strike out his testimony,' quoth
The learned judge: 'This Court denies
Its ear to stories which surprise.
I hold that witnesses exempt
From coaching all are in contempt.'
Both Prosecution and Defense
Applauded the judicial sense,
And the spectators all averred
Such wisdom they had never heard:
'Twas plain the prisoner would be
Found guilty in the first degree.
Meanwhile that wight's pale cheek confessed
The nameless terrors in his breast.
He felt remorseful, too, because
He wasn't half they said he was.
'If I'd been such a rogue,' he mused
On opportunities unused,
'I might have easily become
As wealthy as Methusalum.'
This journalist adorned, alas,
The middle, not the Bible, class.

With equal skill the lawyers' pleas
Attested their divided fees.
Each gave the other one the lie,
Then helped him frame a sharp reply.

Good Lord! it was a bitter fight,
And lasted all the day and night.
When once or oftener the roar
Had silenced the judicial snore
The speaker suffered for the sport
By fining for contempt of court.
Twelve jurors' noses good and true
Unceasing sang the trial through,
And even _vox populi_ was spent
In rattles through a nasal vent.
Clerk, bailiff, constables and all
Heard Morpheus sound the trumpet call
To arms-his arms-and all fell in
Save counsel for the Man of Sin.
That thaumaturgist stood and swayed
The wand their faculties obeyed-
That magic wand which, like a flame.
Leapt, wavered, quivered and became
A wonder-worker-known among
The ignoble vulgar as a Tongue.

How long, O Lord, how long my verse
Runs on for better or for worse
In meter which o'ermasters me,
Octosyllabically free!
A meter which, the poets say,
No power of restraint can stay;
A hard-mouthed meter, suited well
To him who, having naught to tell,
Must hold attention as a trout
Is held, by paying out and out
The slender line which else would break
Should one attempt the fish to take.
Thus tavern guides who've naught to show
But some adjacent curio
By devious trails their patrons lead
And make them think 't is far indeed.
Where was I?

While the lawyer talked
The rogue took up his feet and walked:
While all about him, roaring, slept,
Into the street he calmly stepped.
In very truth, the man who thought
The people's voice from heaven had caught
God's inspiration took a change
Of venue-it was passing strange!
Straight to his editor he went
And that ingenious person sent
A Negro to impersonate
The fugitive. In adequate
Disguise he took his vacant place
And buried in his arms his face.
When all was done the lawyer stopped
And silence like a bombshell dropped
Upon the Court: judge, jury, all
Within that venerable hall
(Except the deaf and dumb, indeed,
And one or two whom death had freed)
Awoke and tried to look as though
Slumber was all they did not know.

And now that tireless lawyer-man
Took breath, and then again began:
'Your Honor, if you did attend
To what I've urged (my learned friend
Nodded concurrence) to support
The motion I have made, this court
May soon adjourn. With your assent
I've shown abundant precedent
For introducing now, though late,
New evidence to exculpate
My client. So, if you'll allow,
I'll prove an _alibi_!' 'What?-how?'
Stammered the judge. 'Well, yes, I can't
Deny your showing, and I grant
The motion. Do I understand
You undertake to prove-good land!-
That when the crime-you mean to show
Your client wasn't _there_?' 'O, no,
I cannot quite do that, I find:
My _alibi's_ another kind
Of _alibi_,-I'll make it clear,
Your Honor, that he isn't _here_.'
The Darky here upreared his head,
Tranquillity affrighted fled
And consternation reigned instead!


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Poem Submitted: Thursday, September 27, 2012



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