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I know not whether Laws be right,

  Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol

  Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,

  A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law

  That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took His brother's life,

  And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff

  With a most evil fan.

This too I know- and wise it were

  If each could know the same-
That every prison that men build

  Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see

  How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,

  And blind the goodly sun:
And the do well to hide their Hell,

  For in it things are done
That Son of things nor son of Man

  Ever should look upon!

The vilest deeds like poison weeds

  Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man

  That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,

  And the warder is Despair.

For they starve the little frightened child

  Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,

  And gibe the old and gray,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,

  And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell

  Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death

  Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust

  In Humanity's machine.

The brackish water that we drink

  Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales

  Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks

  Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst

  Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,

  For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day

  Becomes one's heart by night.

With midnight always in one's heart,

  And twilight in one's cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,

  Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far

  Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near

  To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door

  Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,

  With soul and body marred.

And thus we rust Life's iron chain

  Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,

  And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind

  And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,

  In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave

  Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house

  With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break

  And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan

  And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart

  May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat,

  And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took

  The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart

  The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law

  Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal

  His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood

  The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,

  The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,

  And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain

  Became Christ's snow-white seal.

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