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The Dying Convict's Letter by Henry Parkes

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["Among the few who died in June 1794, was a convict of the name of Gillies. His death took place on the morning of the Speedy's arrival from England; by which ship a letter was received addressed to him, admonishing him of the uncertainty of life, recommending him early to think of the end of it, and acquainting him with the death of his wife, a child, and two other near relations. He had ceased to breathe a few moments before this distressful intelligence would otherwise have reached him."- Collins' History of New South Wales, chap. 13.  These verses were suggested by the above paragraph, though it will be seen the writer has not confined himself to the facts, as therein related.]

In mental agony he lifted up
   His voice to him who hears the sufferer's prayer;
"Merciful God! withhold this bitter cup,
   My failing strength, a little while, repair,--
Oh, let me hear once more, before I go,
Of her whom my rash crime has steep'd in shame and woe!"

There was a pause:- he knew by the glad hum
   Of expectation round his squalid couch,
An English ship had anchor'd there was come
   To land, a boat with letters, --- scarce they touch
The beach, when a soil'd missive met the eye
Of one he sent to enquire; --- 'tis his! now read, and die.
"My dear lost son."- they were his father's words,-
   "In grief unbounded I now write to thee;
And oh! I fear my heart's sore-strained chords
   Will break long ere thine answer reaches me;
Only for that I live; --- alas, alas!
How, like the morning dews, our earthly joys all pass!

"O, son, repent thee, while the day is thine,
   Trust not the morrow, -- death may come before;
Let not God's anger smite thee 'midst thy sin,
   Turn, turn, and mercy at his feet implore!
How shall I tell thee, too unhappy son,
Whose head, to warn thy soul, his wrath has fall'n upon?

"She whom thou didst bring home, in life's fair morn
   To sit where sat thy mother, by our hearth;
Whose smiles were of a guileless spirit born.
   Whose sadness seem'd more sweet than others mirth;
She who so clung to thee, when guilt and shame,
Like a foul leprosy, covered thy felon's name!

"Forgive my anguished heart, my son, if hard
   The words I've written:--- she is gone to rest!
Yet fairer should have been her love'e reward,
   Cruel it was to wound that gentle breast
So deeply and so ruthlessly! -- with her
Sleeps thy fair boy; he, too, shares the dark sepulchre."

He ceased to read, his bony hand still clenched
   The opened letter; as he backward fell
Upon his sea weed pillow; death was quenching
   The feeble light in his cold heart, -- 'twas well!
Yet once again, to search that scroll, he strove,
For words he knew were there, of her departed love.

Vain was his dying effort, to unfold
   The written treasure, -- but not all in vain.--
That struggle freed his soul from earth's faint hold,
   His sin and suffering past! the prisoner's chain
Had a light pressure for his pulseless limb;
An ignominious grave in pity closed o'er him!

First published
in The Weekly Register of Politics, Facts and General Literature, 13 July 1844

Author reference sites: Austlit, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian Poetry Library

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An Exile's Vigil by Henry Parkes

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How hush'd this lovely night, no sound
   Of mortal agency,
Save only the slip's gentle bound
   Disquieting the sea.
Falls on the heart -- a solitude
In which all nature seems subdued.

And yet a joy, to nature true,
   Touching the heart with pain,
Wakes 'mid the lonely waters blue,
   And feelings come again
Which made the light of childhood's brow,
And come at sorrow's bidding now.

Who ever looked in love to heaven,
   So starry and so still,
And felt not then that hollowing leaven
   Above all sense of ill;
Which joy both mingled in life's cup,
The surface sparkling gladdening up?

Man's better nature must have scope,
   In solitude like this;
And dreamings will have birth from hope
   Of untouched stories of bliss --
Despite the ruin of the past --
But all too beautiful to last.

Ah me! on my poor wounded heart
   The softening influence falls,
To admit still deeper sorrow's smart;
   Each beauty but recalls
The pictures fair, which passed away
Beneath my grasp, in life's young day.

The breeze springs up, the white sails dip
   Into the shadowy night;
And gallant rides the convict ship,
   Exulting in her bright
And billowy track -- with her go forth
Sin's exiles to the ends of earth.

A year ago, fond hearts there were,
   Whose breaking this had been!
I bless thee, Death, for taking her
   Who bore me ere she'd seen
The evil of my heart, or deemed
My spirit darker than it seemed.

I go unto that southern land,
   Where mounts remorseless crime
In penal misery, 'mid the bland
   Luxuriance of the clime;
'Mid scenes of nature's fairest bloom,
Making a deep unnatural gloom.

I go unwept for mercy's sake!
   So much of ill I've dared;
And aught of good, which might rewake
   Man's love, so little shared.
I go, without a wish to avert
My doom, yet would myself desert.

This solitariness of grief,
   In retribution's hour,
To writhing guilt is some relief;
   It leaves not man the power
To mark the change, nor link remaining
In the broken chain that's worth regaining.

Farewell; a word I might unsay,
   Since human heart heeds not
Its utterance as I pass away;
  Mine is the felon's lot!
Yet childhood's home, farewell, farewell!
Though 'midst thy smiles the stranger dwell.
First published in The Australasian Chronicle, 27 February 1841

Author reference sites: Austlit, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Australian Poetry Library

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