‘The Old Prison’ by Judith Wright

Image source: Sandra Milliken

The Old Prison by Judith Wright

The rows of cells are unroofed,
a flute for the wind’s mouth,
who comes with a breath of ice
from the blue caves of the south.

O dark and fierce day:
the wind like an angry bee
hunts for the black honey
in the pits of the hollow sea.

Waves of shadow wash
the empty shell bone-bare,
and like a bone it sings
a bitter song of air.

Who built and laboured here?
The wind and the sea say
-Their cold nest is broken
and they are blown away-

They did not breed nor love,
each in his cell alone
cried as the wind now cries
through this flute of stone.

The Old Prison is a poem by the famous Australian poet, Judith Wright. It reflects on the ruins of the jail at the historical settlement of Port Arthur, which is located on a narrow peninsula jutting out into the Southern Ocean on the far south-east coast of Tasmania. Established by Governor George Arthur in 1830 and in service until 1877, the jail housed around 2000 prisoners, most of whom had re-offended since their arrival in Australia as convicts. The prison was virtually escape-proof, surrounded as it was by cold, shark-infested waters. There was only a narrow land access route and that was guarded by a line of ferocious dogs. Although it was planned as a ‘model prison’, it was more like hell on earth for the inmates, who had sentences ranging from several years to life. (Source: Sandra Milliken)

The following is Sandra Milliken’s choral interpretation of the poem. Scary.


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