Fitz James O’Brien – The Prisoner of War

The Prisoner of War
by Fitz-James O’Brien

As I lie in my cot at night, and look through the open door,
And watch the silken sky that is woven with threads of stars,
While the white tents sleep on the field like sheep on a tawny moor,
And the hushed streets traverse the camps like dusty bars,
I think of my comrade afar, lying down in a southern cell,
With his life on a paper lot and a loving heart on his life,
And my blood boils up in my veins, and I feel like a fiend of hell,
And I long to vent my hate and my rage in strife.

I loved him with all my love; loved him even as well as she
Whose hair he carried away in a locket close to his heart;
I remember how jealous I felt when under the sycamore-tree,
The night ere the regiment started, I saw them part.
We had been chums together, -had studied and drank in tune;
The joy or the grief that struck him rebounded also on me, –
As his joy arose mine followed, as waters follow the moon,
And his tears found their way to my heart as a stream to the sea.

I sing the irregular song of a soul that is bursting with pain!
There is no metre for sorrow, no rhythm for real despair:
Go count the feet of the wind as it tramples the naked plain,
Or mimic the silent sadness of snow in the air!
I cannot control my heart, nor my innate desire of song,
I only know that a wild and impetuous grief,
A fierce, athletic, vengeful feeling of wrong,
Beats at my brain to-night and must have relief!

Spite of all I do to crush it, his sorrowful face will come,
Come with its awful framework of interlaced bars and stone,
And out of his patient visage, and lips that are terribly dumb,
I hear the imprisoned whisper, “I am alone!”
Solitude thus for him, the life and soul of his throng;
Whose wit electric wakened the sluggish board;
Whose voice, though sweet in converse, was sweeter still in song;
Whose heart like a cornucopia always poured!

I mind me when by the Charles River we twain have walked,
Close to the elms so hallowed in unwritten song,
And over the college topics gravely pondered and talked,
With devious student ideas of right and wrong.

Ah! The river flows here in its usual placid way;
The wherries are moored at the boat-house, the elm-trees leaf and fall,
But there is not a voice that now could make the old college gay,
His dusty cap and his gown are worth them all.

How can he be a prisoner there when I have him here in my heart?
Closer I hold his image than they in the south hold him;
It is wrapped and corded with fibres that never, never will part,
And shrined in love and friendship instead of a dungeon grim.
Up on the fatal bluff where the gallant Baker fell,
And the foe, insidious, fired from thicket, and copse, and tree, –
There, after fighting long, and bravely, and well,
The friend of my heart was cut off as a stream by the sea!
Lying here in my tent at night, and looking out at the door,
It is I who am the prisoner, not you, O beloved friend!
It is I who feel the shackels, and the prick of the healing sore,
And all the prison sufferings without end.
I see the mocking faces all day through the windows stare, –
I know they are staring at you, but they sneeringly lower on me,-
And I swear an oath as sacred as a soldier ever can swear
That I will be with you there, or you will be free!

IX Camp, December 1861