thomas m wilson

In the Prison of his Days

December 10th, 2008

At Fremantle Prison imprisoned men painted pictures of nature on thick walls.  That is tensioned razor wire at the top of the above limestone wall.  This mural was painted in 1991, just before the prison was closed as a functioning place of incarceration. Some of the paintings done by Aboriginal men remain, fading now as they are weathered by the elements, but still poignant.  Beneath the razor wire they dreamt of open eucalyptus woodland.

Scenes of natural landscapes have been shown by numerous researchers in the field of psychology to be good for our mental health.  E. O. Wilson has proposed a theory of biophilia to give an evolutionary explanation for this: we evolved along with a rich diversity of species in the rift valleys of east Africa and a propensity to find psychological comfort and aesthetic pleasure in a diversity of natural life is easily activated in our pathways of mental development.  Biophilia is a part of human nature.

Many of us who live in Fremantle but who aren’t locked up physically in Fremantle prison seem to forget to praise the earth.  This brings me to invoke the famous words of W. H. Auden from his elegy for W. B. Yeats:

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.’

Auden was talking to the figure of the poet, and talking about the power of literature and poetry to raise our spirits and give us profound existential satisfactions.  But I want to use his words for my own present purposes.  Even as we are free to roam around the streets of our towns and cities we can suffer a kind of spiritual incarceration.  What do I mean by this?  I mean that the concrete nature of your every day environment can become the prison of your days.

But we can see through the walls.  We can remember the green fields behind and beyond.  Listen to the voice of the American poet W. S. Merwin:


By this part of the century few are left who believe
in the animals for they are not there in the carved parts
of them served on plates and the pleas from the slatted trucks
are sounds of shadows that possess no future
there is still game for the pleasure of killing
and there are pets for the children but the lives that followed
courses of their own other than ours and older
have been migrating before us some are already
far on the way and yet Peter with his gaunt cheeks
and point of white beard the face of an aged Lawrence
Peter who had lived on from another time and country
and who had seen so many things set out and vanish
still believed in heaven and said he had never once
doubted it since his childhood on the farm in the days
of the horses he had not doubted it in the worst
times of the Great War and afterward and he had come
to what he took to be a kind of earthly
model of it as he wandered south in his sixties
by that time speaking the language well enough
for them to make him out he took the smallest roads
into a world he thought was a thing of the past
with wildflowers he scarcely remembered and neighbors
working together scything the morning meadows
turning the hay before the noon meal bringing it in
by milking time husbandry and abundance
all the virtues he admired and their reward bounteous
in the eyes of a foreigner and there he remained
for the rest of his days seeing what he wanted to see
until the winter when he could no longer fork
the earth in his garden and then he gave away
his house land everything and committed himself
to a home to die in an old chateau where he lingered
for some time surrounded by those who had lost
the use of body or mind and as he lay there he told me
that the wall by his bed opened almost every day
and he saw what was really there and it was eternal life
as he recognized at once when he saw the gardens
he had made and the green fields where he had been
a child and his mother was standing there then the wall would close
and around him again were the last days of the world.

The walls close around us – we are cut of from the natural world.  The animals migrate before us – we no longer see wild animals in our lives.  For Merwin’s character Peter this means that the world is ending.  His life is ending, but more than this: the more-than-human world is ending.

Peter’s life in an old chateau becomes life lived in a benevolent prison. As the condemned man in Fremantle prison dreamt of a rolling Australian woodland, so Peter dreams of the gardens and green fields of France beyond the chateau’s walls.  Beyond and behind the walls lies the mother, the natural world.  And Peter has learnt how to see through the walls.  In an Australian prison an Aboriginal man projects his dreams of the open woodlands of his home through the medium of paint onto a limestone wall.

Most of us do not have our freedom denied in so literal a sense.  Most of us are not imprisoned.  Despite this it remains for us caught in a more metaphorical prison of concreted days to really learn how to praise.