Owen Suffolk, the poet bushranger, spent many years in and out of prison, which enabled him to find a lot of inspiration. His depiction of prison life is mournful and tinged with melancholy. To Suffolk, the prison is the place where souls and minds are broken and every day is a reminder of the grim reality of that condition. To this end his poem ‘The Prison Bell’ captures the essence of the convict life and all its suffering.
The Prison Bell
By Owen Suffolk
Hark to the bell of sorrow! – ’tis awak’ning up again
Each broken spirit from its brief forgetfulness of pain.
Its sad sound seems to me to be a deathwail from the past,
An elegy for buried joys too pure and bright to last.
It haunts me like an echo from the dark depths of despair,
And conjures up the fiend-like forms of misery and care;
The saddest of the sorrowful, its tones bright dreams dispel,
For waking woes are summoned by the harsh-toned prison bell.
It tells me that I am not now what once I used to be,
A dearly loved and loving boy whose heart was light with glee;
It tells me that life’s coming years must be long years of pain,
And that my brow with innocence can ne’er be wreathed again:
That I must wander through this world all friendless and forlorn,
Unsolaced by affection’s smile, the thing of shame and scorn.
Those fearful tones, those dirge-like tones, what fearful tales they tell!
It rings the death of hope and joy, that sadly sounding bell.
How oft when some bright vision of the days of olden time
Comes o’er me like an angel dream from heaven’s own hallowed clime,
And beautiful and holy things – the bright stars and the flowers,
And childhood’s prayer – were dear to me as in life’s sinless hours.
How oft, too, when in such dreams I wander by the side
Of one fair form whom virtue might have won me for my bride,
They come, those tones so horrible, those drear tones through my cell,
And memory shuddereth to hear the harsh-toned prison bell.
That bell! – how many hear it sound who’ve ceased to struggle long,
Who, reckless of crime’s after doom, have linked themselves to wrong;
And heard it is with shuddering and tearful vain regret
By those who for one first bad act for years must suffer yet.
‘Tis also sadly heard by some strange-struggling beings who
Cling to the false and evil while they love the good and true;
And some – a few – all innocent, who’ve learned, alas! Too well
That man’s best judgement sometimes errs, may weep to hear that bell.
I’ve heard it when bright memories have crowded to my brain,
When hopes and aspirations high have whispering come again;
And it hath sought to crush each thought that fain would save from ill.
As wildly it hath chanted forth, ‘Despair; be evil still.’
But no, a prison oft hath proved a holy place of yore,
And if the heart yearns for the good, God will the good restore,
Then courage soul: let faith’s bright beams grief’s darksome shades dispel,
And days of joy may yet be thine far from the prison bell.