Poet’s Nook: “Behind The Bars” by Edward Smyth Jones

I am a pilgrim far from home,
A wanderer like Mars,
And thought my wanderings ne’er should come,
So fixed behind the bars!

I left my sunny Southern home
Beneath the silver stars;
A northward path began to roam,
Not seeking prison bars.

I sought a higher, holier life,
Which never virtue mars;
But Fate had spun a net of strife
For me behind the bars!

My mother’s lowly thatched-roofed cot
My nobler senses jars;
And so I seek to aid her lot,
But not behind the bars!

‘Tis said, forsooth, the poet learns
Through sufferings and wars
To sing the song which deepest burns
Behind the prison bars!

Thus I resign myself to Fate,
Regardless of her scars;
For soon she’ll open wide the gate
For me behind the bars.

I plead to you, my fellow man,
For all who wear the tars;
To lend what little help you can
To us behind the bars.

O God, I breathe my prayer to Thee,
Who never sinner bars:
Set each immortal spirit free
Behind these prison bars!

In 1910, after a 1,200-mile journey on foot and on freight trains from Indianapolis to pursue his dream of attending Harvard University, Edward Smyth Jones was arrested for vagrancy in Boston, Massachusetts. Born in 1881 in Mississippi to former slaves, Jones honed his writing skills while studying and working, and had a book of poems published by the time he arrived in Boston. After his release from jail, Jones found support from the African-American lawyer Clement Morgan and William Henry Holtzclaw, who founded the all-black Utica Institute in Mississippi. Working as a janitor at Harvard allowed Jones to attend the Boston Latin School for a time, but his funds were insufficient to continue, and he had to abandon his hopes of attending Harvard. He moved on to New York and then Chicago, working first as a waiter and then as a labourer until his death in 1968. 

This striking collage-style animation from the Canadian filmmaker and artist Neely Goniodsky brings new life to Jones’s little-known poem Behind the Bars – eight sharply rendered quatrains on prejudice, institutional oppression and his quest for a better, nobler life. 

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