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The purgatory of suicides; a prison-rhyme in ten books online

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THE following 'Prison-Rhyme,' part of an historical romance,
a series of simple tales, and a small Hebrew guide, were the
fruits of two years and eleven weeks' confinement in Stafford
Gaol. The first idea of creating a poem, in which the spirits
of suicides should be the actors or conversers, arose in my mind
ten years ago ; but a line might never have been composed
except for my imprisonment ; and the political strife in which
I have been engaged has certainly given a form and colour to
my thoughts which they could not have worn had my con-
ceptions been realized at an earlier period. An individual
who bent over the last and wielded the awl till three and twenty,
struggling, amidst weak health and deprivation to acquire
a knowledge of languages, and whose experience in after-
lite was, at first, limited to the humble sphere of a school-
master, and never enlarged beyond that of a laborious worker
on a newspaper, could scarcely have constructed a fabric of
verse embodying more than a few poetical generalities. My
persecutors have, at least, the merit of assisting to give a
more robust character to my verse ; though I most assuredly
owe them no love for the days and nights of agony I endured
from neuralgia, rheumatism, and I know not what other tor-
ments, occasioned by a damp sleeping cell, added to the
generally injurious influences of imprisonment.

I have not the slightest wish to enlarge on the circumstances
of suffering under which my verses have been strung toge-
ther : and only deprecate that severity of criticism which a
Chartist rhymer must expect to encounter, by observing that
I am painfully conscious my book contains many passages
correspondingly feeble with the debilitated state in which I
often strove to urge on the completion of my design, For

B 2


reasons that involve the fate of others, as well as my own, I
cannot omit to add a few remarks in this preface relative to
the causes of our imprisonment.

The first six stanzas of the following poem may be consi-
dered as embodying a speech I delivered to the Colliers on
strike, in the Staffordshire Potteries, on the 15th of August,
1S42. Without either purposing, aiding and abetting, or even
knowing of an outbreak till it had occurred, I regret to add
that my address was followed by the demolition and burning
of several houses, and by other acts of violence. I, and
others, were apprehended and tried. My first trial was for
the most falsely alleged crime of burning and demolishing, or
assisting to burn and demolish. Sir Wm. Follett, then Soli-
citor-General, used every endeavour to procure a conviction.
I pleaded my own cause, a number of respectable working-
men proved my alibi, and Judge Tindal intimated his convic-
tion that the evidence did not prove I was guilty. The jury
returned a verdict in my favour ; and I was thus saved from
transportation, perhaps for the term of my natural life, but
was remanded for trial on two other indictments.

In a few minutes, I met a melancholy proof of the extreme
peril in which I had just been placed, for, on being taken back
to the dungeon beneath the Court-House, a filthy, stifling
cell to which prisoners are brought from the gaol on the day
of trial, and which, in the language of the degraded beings
who usually occupy it, is called the ' glory- hole,' I found
William Ellis walking about the room, and on taking his
hand and speaking to him for the first time in my life, I
learned that he had just been sentenced to twenty-one years'
transportation for a like alleged offence to that for which I
had been tried and acquitted. Yet he assured me, in the most
solemn manner, that he was utterly innocent, and was asleep
in his bed at Burslem, at the time it had been sworn he was
on the scene at the fire of Hanley. The aged woman with
whom he and his wife lodged made oath to the truth of this ;
but in spite of corroborative proofs of his innocence, he was
convicted on the strange testimony of one man who said that
he first saw a tall figure with its back towards him, at the
fires, that he then, for a few moments, saw the side face
blacked,of this figure, and that he could swear it was Ellis!


On the false evidence of this man, alone, has poor Ellis been
banished from his country, leaving his wife and children to
the bitterest contumely and insult from his enemies. Yet,
he had committed a crime, and it was so indelibly chronicled
in the memories of the Staffordshire magnates that the gove-
nor of Stafford Gaol reminded him of it, as soon as he was
brought to prison. He had been guilty of an act of dis-
courtesy to the High Sheriff of the County ! At a County
Meeting called to congratulate the Queen on her 'provi-
dential deliverance' from 'assassination' by the silly boy,
Oxford, Ellis, at the head of the Chartists of the Pot-
teries and the democratic shoemakers of Stafford, opposed
the grandee when named as president of the meeting, suc-
ceeded in getting a working-man into the chair, by an over-
whelming show of hands, and the intended ' congratulation'
ended in nought. Such was poor Ellis's real crime. Did it
deserve twenty-one years' transportation ? Let his bitterest
enemies answer, for even they are now professing their belief
that Ellis was not at the fires.

I am, then, not the heaviest sufferer by false accusation,
yet I feel I have great cause to complain of the crookedness
of their procedures on the part of our prosecutors ; and,
though it may subject me to a sneer for squeamish taste, I
cannot help observing that I could have submitted to im-
prisonment without giving the lawyers much trouble, if the
proceedings against myself and others had been less crooked.
When the third indictment against me was read, for 'sedi-
tion' simply, I told the Judge that I would at once plead
'guilty,' and give the Court no further trouble, if he would,
as a lawyer, assure me that it was sedition to advise men to
' cease labour until the People's Charter became the law of
the land,' for that I had so advised the Colliers in the Pot-
teries, and would not deny it : but Sir Nicholas Tyndal said
he could not assure me that it was sedition !

After being at liberty some time, on bail, I was tried before
Judge Erskine, for a 'seditious conspiracy' with William
Ellis, John itichards, and Joseph Capper. Again, I felt, dis-
content at the crookedness of the law or custom that rendered
it possible for me to stand indicted for conspiracy with the
poor exile, whom I had never seen nor communicated with


in my life till we became prisoners. My discontent rose to
stern resolve, however, as soon as I found, by the opening
speech of counsel, that it was intended, by what I con-
sidered most villainous unfairness, to revive all the old
charges of ' aiding to burn and demolish' in this second trial,
although under an indictment for conspiracy only. My Judge
acted worthily for one who bears the honoured name of Ers-
kine, and allowed me all the fair-play an Englishman could
desire who had to plead his own cause, without lawyer or
counsel, against four regular gownsmen with horse-hair wigs.
The struggle lasted ten days, and the County papers made testy
complaints of " the insolent daring of a Chartist, who had
thrown the whole county business of Staffordshire, and Shrop-
shire, and Herefordshire into disorder ;" but they were, of
course, quite blind to the mean-spirited injustice which had
girt me up to fight against it. We were found ' guilty,' as a
matter of course, but the result was to me a victory ; for I so
completely succeeded in laying bare the falsehood of the wit-
nesses who affirmed I had been seen in the immediate neigh-
bourhood of the fires, that the jury told the judge they did
not wish to have that part of his lordship's notes read to
them which contained the evidence of the said witnesses, but
preferred that his lordship should write " mistake" thereon
instead. My aged friend John Richards, and myself, were
called up for judgment in the Court of Queen's Bench some
weeks after, and Lord Denman, Sir John Patteson, and Sir
John Williams there read out the word " mistake," as in-
serted in Judge Erskine's notes ; and thus openly proclaimed
the fact that my enemies had failed in their attempt to fix
the brand of felony upon me.

I make no doubt but that many will be disposed still to
think and say, that however far I might be from intending to
excite to violence, since violence followed my address, it is
but just that I have suffered for it. I beg to say, however,
that I hold a very contrary opinion. If an Englishman ex-
cites his wronged fellow-countrymen to a legal and coustitu-
tutional course, (and Lord Chief Justice Tindal told the
Stafford jury that now the old Combination Act was abolish-
ed, it icas perfectly legal and constitutional for men to agree
to cease labour, until the People's Charter became law,) it


surely is not the person who so excites them that ought to be
held responsible for the violence they may commit under an
enraged sense of wrong, but the Government who wrongs them,
I appeal to Englishmen of all shades of politics whether this
is not the judgment we pass on all th*e fortunate revolutions
that have occurred in our history.

Yet Sir William Follett, who again used his decaying
strength, the hour before judgment was passed upon us in
the Bench, pointed to me with an austere look, and said,
" This man is the chief author of the violence that occurred,
and I conjure your lordships to pass a severe sentence on the
prisoner Cooper."

Scarcely three years have passed, and the great lawyer is
no more. He wronged me, but I think of him with no vin-
dictive feeling, for my imprisonment has opened to me a
nobler source of satisfaction than he could ever derive from
all his honours. He amassed wealth, but the Times, alluding
to the "frequent unhappy disappointments" occasioned by
Sir William Follett's non-attendance on cases he undertook
to plead, says " So often did they occur, that solicitors and
clients, in the agony of disaster and defeat, were in the habit
of saying that Sir William often took briefs when he must
have known that he could not attend in court : and as barris-
ters never return fees, the suitor sometimes found that he
lost his money and missed his advocate at a moment when
he could badly spare either." I am poor, and have been
plunged into more than two hundred pounds' debt by the
persecution of my enemies ; but I have the consolation to
know that my course was dictated by heartfelt zeal to relieve
the sufferings and oppressions of my fellow-men. He was
entombed with pomp, and a host of titled great ones, of
every shade of party, attended the laying of his clay in the
grave ; and they purpose now to erect a monument to his
memory. Let them build it : the self-educated shoemaker
has also reared his ; and, despite its imperfections, he has a
calm confidence that, though the product of poverty, and
suffering, and wrong, it will outlast the posthumous stone-
block that may be erected to perpetuate the memory of the
titled lawyer.

134, Blackfriars Road, London.
August 1, 1845.



CIRCUMSTANCES over which I had no control prevented the
re-issue of my ' Prison-Rhyme,' when the first edition was
sold off, more than a year ago. Ill health afterwards dis-
abled me from proceeding with the correction of numerous
unartistic rhymes and other errors, as well as misprints,
which are to be found in the first edition. Having attempted
to remove some of these imperfections, I have been, at length,
enabled to bring out my book anew, and in a cheaper form,
believing that my own order, the Working-Class, would wil-
lingly purchase a body of verse written, at least, with the
intent to further their interests, if its price brought the pos-
session of it within their means. I have also added several
historical and explanatory notes to those which were at first
given ; and have thus, I trust, rendered the present, more
peculiarly, a ' People's Edition.'

7, Park Place, Knightsbridge,
London, November 1, 1847.





Right noble age-fellow, whose speech and though!

Proclaim thee other than the supple throng

Who glide Life's custom-smoothed path along,
Prescription's easy slaves, strangers to doubt,
Because they never think ! a lay untaught

I offer thee. Receive the humble song,

A tribute of the feeble to the strong
Of inward ken, for that the theme is fraught
With dreams of Reason's high enfranchisement.

Illustrious Schiller's limner, unto thee
Mind's freedom must be precious, or what lent

His toil its light, and what fires thine ? The free
Of soul with quenchless zeal must ever glow
To spread the freedom which their own minds know.

May 3, 1845.



SLAVES, toil no more ! Why delve, and moil, and pine,
To glut the tyrant-forgers of your chain ?
Slaves, toil no more ! Up, from the midnight mine,
Summon your swarthy thousands to the plain;
Beneath the bright sun marshalled, swell the strain
Of Liberty ; and, while the lordlings view
Your banded hosts, with stricken heart and brain,
Shout, as one man, ' Toil we no more renew,
' Until the Many cease their slavery to the Few !'

' We'll crouch, and toil, and weave, no more to weep !'
Exclaim your brothers from the weary loom :
Yea, now, they swear, with one resolve, dread, deep,
' We'll toil no more to win a pauper's doom !'
And, while the millions swear, fell Famine's gloom
Spreads from their haggard faces like a cloud
Big with the fear and darkness of the tomb.
How, 'neath its terrors, are the tyrants bowed ! [Proud !
Slaves, toil no more to starve ! Go forth, and tame the

And why not tame them all ? Of more than clay
Do your high lords proclaim themselves ? Of blood
Illustrious boast they ? or, that reason's ray
Beams from the brows of Hollo's robber-brood [1]
More brightly than from yours ? Let them make good
Their vaunt of nobleness or now confess
The majesty of ALL ! Raise ye the feud
Not, like their sires, to murder and possess ;
But for unbounded power to gladden and to bless.



What say ye, that the priests proclaim content ?
So taught their Master, who the hungry fed
As well as taught, who wept with men, and bent,
In gentleness and love, o'er bier and bed
Where wretchedness was found, until it fled ?
Rebuked he not the false ones, till his zeal
Drew down their hellish rage upon his head ?
And who, that yearns for world-spread human weal,
Doth not, ere long, the weight of priestly vengeance feel ?


Away ! the howl of wolves in sheep's disguise
Why suffer ye to fill your ears ? their pride
Why suffer ye to stalk before your eyes ?
Behold, in pomp, the purple prelate ride
And, on the beggar by his chariot's side
Frown sullenly, although in rags and shame
His brother cries for food ! Up, swell the tide
Of retribution, till ye end the game
Long practised by sleek priests in old Religion's name.


Slaves, toil no more ! Despite their boast, ev'n kings
Must cease to sit in pride, without your toil :
Spite of their sanctity, the surpliced things
Who through all time, have thirsted to embroil
Man with his neighbour, and pollute the soil
Of holiest mother Earth with brother's gore,
Join but to fold your hands, and ye will foil
To utter helplessness, yea, to the core
Strike their pale craft with paler death! Slaves, toil no more!

For that these words of truth I boldly spake
To Labour's children in their agony
Of want and insult ; and, like men awake
After drugg'd slumbers, they did wildly flee
To do they knew not what, until, with glee,
The cellar of a Christian priest they found,
And with its poison fired their misery
To mad revenge, swift hurling to the ground
And flames bed, cassock, wine-cups of the tipler go\v:



For that I boldly spake these words of truth;
And the starved multitude,' to fury wrought
By sense of injury, and void of ruth,
Rushed forth to deeds of recklessness, but nought
Achieved of freedom, since, nor plan, nor thought
Their might directed ; for this treason foul
'Gainst evil tyrants, I was hither brought
A captive, 'mid the vain derisive howl
Of some who thought the iron now should pierce my soul.

Let them howl on ! Their note, perchance, may change :
The earthquake oft is presaged by dull rest :
Kings may, to-morrow, feel its heavings strange !
For my lorn dove, who droopeth in her nest,
I mourn, in tenderness ; but, to this breast
Again to clasp my meek one I confide
With fervid trustfulness! Still self-possest,
Since Truth shall one day triumph, let betide
What may, within these bars in patience I can 'bide.

I had a vision, on my prison-bed,
Which took its tinct from the mind's waking throes :
Of patriot blood on field and scaffold shed;
Of martyrs' ashes; of the demon foes
Ubiquitous, relentless, that oppose
And track, through life, the footsteps of the brave
Who champion Truth ; of Evil that arose
Within the universe of Good, and gave
To sovereign Man the soul to live his brother's slave;

Of knowledge which, from sire to son bequeathed,
Hath ever on the Few with bounty smiled ;
But, on the Many, wastingly hath breathed
A pestilence, from the scourged crowd that piled,
Of yore, the pyramids, to the dwarfed child
Whose fragile bloom steam and starvation blast ;
Of specious arts, whereby the bees beguiled,
Yield to the sable drones their sweet repast,
And creep, themselves, the path to heaven by pious fast;


Of infamy for him who gives himself
A sacrifice to stem the tyrants' rage ;
And, for the tyrants' pander, peerage, pelf,
And honours blazed with lies on hist'ry's page ;
Of giant Wrong who, fed, from age to age,
With man's best blood and woman's purest tears,
Seems with our poor humanity to wage
Exterminating war ; of hopes and fears
That mock the human worm from youth to grayest years ;


I, waking, thought or dreamt, for thoughts are dreams
At best, 'until, in weariness of heart,
I cried Is life worth having ? Earth but teems
With floods of evil : 'tis one sordid mart
Where consciences for gold, without a smart,
Are sold; and holiest names are gravest cheats:
Men, from their cradles, learn to play a part
At plundering each other : He who beats,
On his weak neighbour, swift, the plund' ring trick repeats.

Is life worth having ? Or, is he most wise
Who, with death-potion its fierce fever slakes,
And ends, self-drugg'd, his mortal miseries;
Can he be guilty who, at once, forsakes
The agony which, sure as death, o'ertakes,
Early or late, all who with wrong contend ?
Since Power this earth a clime of misery makes
For him who will not to its godhead bend [wend ?
Why to th' enfranchised grave with sluggish foot-steps


Thus feebly pondering, with troubled brain,
The right of suffering man to consummate,
Unsummoned, his high trust, my heart grew fain
To slay the incubus that on it sate,
Breeding disgust of life and jaundiced hate.
Forthwith, I strove the mind's turmoil to quell
By imaging that joy all-elevate
Which through earth's universal heart shall swell
When over land and sea hath rung Oppression's knell


But sadness checked the strain. Enfever'd Sleep,
With tardy foot, came last ; and, while she bound
My limbs in outward death, within the deep
Recesses of the brain into life wound
These aching thoughts ; yea, into shapes that frowned
Or smiled, by turns, with seeming passion rife,
And descant joined on human themes, though sound
Of human voice none uttered : 'twas the strife
Of Mind, not audible by mode of mortal life.


Methought I voyaged in the bark of Death,
Himself the helmsman, on a skyless sea,
Where none of all his passengers drew breath,
Yet each, instinct with strange vitality,
Glared from his ghastly eye-balls upon me,
And then upon mat pilot, who upheld
One chill and fleshless hand so witheringly
That, while around his boat the hoarse waves swelled,
It seemed as if their rage that solemn signal quelled.

1 know not how these mariners I saw :
No light made visible the grisly crew:
It seemed a vision of the soul, by law
Of corp'ral sense unfettered, and more true
Than living things revealed to mortal view.
Nor can earth's Babel-syllables unfold
Aught that can shadow forth the mystic hue
Of myriad creatures, or their monstrous mould,
Which thwart that dismal sea their hideous hugeness rolled.

Not stature tenlble of mastodon
Or mammoth ; longitude of lizards vast,
Lords of the slime when earth, from chaos won,
Grew big with primal life, until, aghast,
She quaked at her strange children ; not all past
Or present, which from out the deedal earth,
The human reptile, latest born, hath classed
By guess, cleping it ' Knowledge,' for the mirth
Of future worms, crawling, in pride to death from birth ;



Not old leviathan, of bulk uncouth ;
Nor fabled kraken, with his sea-borne trail ;
Not all that sages tell, in sober sooth,
Of the sun's progeny on Memphic vale,
Which from redundant Nile his beams exhale ;
Nor all that phrenzied poets exorcise
From memory's grave, then weave with fancies frail ;
Can image, in their span, or shapes or dyes,
Those ocean-dwellers huge beholding Death's emprize.

The voyage, voyagers, and ocean-forms,
Alike, were strange, and wild, and wonderful.
But marvels grew ! When, of that sea of storms
We reached the shore, the waves at once were lull ;
Death and his skiff evanished, and seemed null
And void as things that never were; while they,
Of late Death's passengers, so cold and dull,
Took, with an air of stern resolve, their way
Into a gloomy land where startling visions lay.


All that Death's ocean shewed of hideoiisness
By living forms in lifeless shapes found here
Its paragon : it was a crude excess
Of all things dern and doleful, dark and drear :
No sun to fructify, no flowers to cheer
Its sullen barrenness: weeds, huge and dank,
And blossomless as stones, and ever sere,
Base sustenance from stagnant waters drank, [rank.
Then spread throughout the plain their pois'nous perfume

Damp, dense, and deathly, yet the climate parched
Those silent travellers with raging thirst ;
But, sick'ning at the slimy pools, they marched
Onward, enfevered, fainting; 'till outburst
Their, burning tongues, as doth a hound's when curst
With madness. Path across that dismal land
Was none; and though no life its waters nursed,
Yet were there fearful sights, on either hand,
That much aflrayed the courage of that ghastly band.


xxiv. [rock,

Chasms yawned, like dragons' jaws, from what seemed
Then closed, with sulphurous smell, and horrid jar,
And uprose giant cliffs, to gibe and mock,
As if with demon features, while, afar,
Appeared colossal meteors for wild war
Gathering their troops terrific, which came on
With fury, but, like some portentous star
That fear-struck men gaze after and 'tis gone !
Vanished those vaporous hosts in that unearthly zone.

Then felt the fainting footmen as if yoked
To viewless vehicles they could not move ;
Yet, fastened by a galling chain, half-choked,
They still to drag their unseen burthen strove,
Till the wild crags came toppling from above,
Threat'ning to crush the stragglers into nought;
When lo ! some airy necromancy wove
Around their trembling limbs, with speed of thought,
A web of gossamer with wizard safety fraught :

And now, as if above the rocks upborne
Suspended in mid-air with vision dazed,
And swimming brain past rescue, doomed, forlorn
For some unspeakable perdition raised,
They seemed; but suddenly, let down, amazed
Their forms engulphed amid the swamp beheld,
Where, while they clung unto the weeds, and gazed
Upward, in hope to climb, some weird hand felled
Their grasp, and o'ertheir heads the poisoned waters welled.

Yet, on dry land as speedily they stood,
Where they again their venturous march preparea ;
While apparitions from the stagnant flood
And murky air, unto the travelers bared
Increasing horrors, as they onward fared.
Ye may a jest this dreaming rhyme esteem :
But these strange terrors my rapt spirit shared ;
And, though it was the journey of a dream,

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Online LibraryThomas CooperThe purgatory of suicides; a prison-rhyme in ten books → online text (page 1 of 20)