The Alleys

A poem by Henry Lawson

I was welcome in a palace when the ball was at my feet,
I was petted in a garden and my triumph was complete.
But for me above the alleys there forever shone a star,
Where the third-rate public houses and the dens of Venus are.
Where the third-rate public houses
And the fourth-rate lodging houses,
And the rag-shops and the pawn-shops and the dens of Venus are.

I was born among the alleys, bred in darkness and in doubt,
And I wrote the truth in blindness and I struggled up and out;
And the world was fair before me and the way was wide and plain,
But the spirit of the alleys ever dragged me back again.
’Tis a madness I inherit
And a blind and reckless spirit.
Oh! the spirit of the alleys ever drags me down again!

There were fair girls in the garden where the spring came in a day,
But the barmaids in the alleys know a wider world than they.
There were wise men in the palace who were born to rule the earth,
But the wrecks amongst the alleys know the world for what it’s worth.
To the pewter from the chalice,
To the slum from the palace,
Aye! the wrecks sunk in the alleys know the world for what it’s worth!

Poets who have done with puzzling, men who talk but dare not think,
Men who might have moulded nations had it not been for the drink!
Wicked stories full of humour, shafts of wit that seldom miss,
Shot from blighted lips of women that the bravest dare not kiss?
Let the worst girl lead the revels
Of the reckless alley devils!,
Pure and virtuous women often, often drive men down to this.

In the days of mental torture when my life was all a hell,
It was down amongst the alleys that I learnt the tales I tell,
From the black-sheep out from England, from the boozer in from Bourke,
From the tired haggard women bending over needle-work:
Tales of wrongs, that fire the spirit,
Tales of more than human merit,
Told in quiet tones and measured, bending over needle-work.

Oh! the pathos and the humour of the shifts of poverty,
Oh! the sympathy of drunkards, wit and truth and charity,
Oh! the worn-out working women and the lives that they endure,
And the hard and callous kindness of the poor unto the poor!
(Where they blame not, those who labour,
And the prostitute’s a neighbour)
Ah! the humour and the courage and the kindness of the poor!

There is fire down in the alleys that has smouldered very long;
There is hatred in the alleys born of centuries of wrong;
And no prayer wins to heaven like a prayer from the slums,
And the thrones of empire totter when the alleys beat their drums.
(Ah! the world is very rotten!
But my sins shall be forgotten
And my work shall be remembered when the alleys beat their drums.)

It is down amongst the alleys, in the alleys dull and damp,
They find kindness in a scoundrel, they find good points in a scamp.
It is down amongst the alleys, now my star has ceased to shine,
I find sympathy with sinners and can hide what shame is mine,
For we trust and shield each other
And a sinner is a brother,
There are souls amongst the alleys who were lost the same as mine.

And if you should some day miss me, and should care to wonder why,
Ask for me amongst the alleys by the name they knew me by:
Mind your head and pick your footsteps for you’ll grope in alley gloom,
And the stairs are steep and narrow where they’ll lead you to a room.
What if floors are foul and dusty
And the air is close and musty?
In the days when I was noble then I wrote in such a room.

You will see a chair and table dimly shown by candle light,
And the pen I dropped for ever from the last line I shall write;
And some poor attempts at comfort, and a bottle, and maybe
You will find a bad girl crying over what is left of me:
Call no friends, I shall not need them;
Call no priests, I shall not heed them,
Let the bad girl do the praying over what is left of me.

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