James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

August 6

The Dream of Eugene Aram

By Thomas Hood (1799–1845)

  • An English scholar executed for murder. The murder was committed while Aram was an usher in a school. His sentence was carried out on August 6, 1759.

  • ’T WAS in the prime of summer time,

    An evening calm and cool,

    And four-and-twenty happy boys

    Came bounding out of school:

    There were some that ran and some that leap’d,

    Like troutlets in a pool.

    Away they sped with gamesome minds,

    And souls untouch’d by sin;

    To a level mead they came, and there

    They drave the wickets in:

    Pleasantly shone the setting sun

    Over the town of Lynn.

    Like sportive deer they cours’d about,

    And shouted as they ran,

    Turning to mirth all things or earth,

    As only boyhood can;

    But the Usher sat remote from all,

    A melancholy man!

    His hat was off, his vest apart,

    To catch heaven’s blessed breeze;

    For a burning thought was in his brow,

    And his bosom ill at ease:

    So he lean’d his head on his hands, and read

    The book between his knees.

    Leaf after leaf, he turn’d it o’er,

    Nor ever glanced aside,

    For the peace of his soul he read that book

    In the golden eventide:

    Much study had made him very lean,

    And pale, and leaden-eyed.

    At last he shut the ponderous tome,

    With a fast and fervent grasp

    He strain’d the dusky covers close,

    And fix’d the brazen hasp:

    “Oh, God! could I so close my mind,

    And clasp it with a clasp!”

    Then leaping on his feet upright,

    Some moody turns he took,—

    Now up the mead, then down the mead,

    And past a shady nook,—

    And, lo! he saw a little boy

    That por’d upon a book.

    “My gentle lad, what is ’t you read—

    Romance or fairy fable?

    Or is it some historic page,

    Of kings and crowns unstable?”

    The young boy gave an upward glance,—

    “It is ‘The Death of Abel.’”

    The Usher took six hasty strides,

    As smit with sudden pain,

    Six hasty strides beyond the place,

    Then slowly back again;

    And down he sat beside the lad,

    And talk’d with him of Cain;

    And, long since then, of bloody men,

    Whose deeds tradition saves;

    Of lonely folk cut off unseen,

    And hid in sudden graves;

    Of horrid stabs, in groves forlorn,

    And murders done in caves;

    And how the sprites of injur’d men

    Shriek upward from the sod;

    Aye, how the ghostly hand will point

    To show the burial clod;

    And unknown facts of guilty acts

    Are seen in dreams from God!

    He told how murderers walk the earth

    Beneath the curse of Cain,

    With crimson clouds before their eyes,

    And flames about their brain:

    For blood has left upon their souls

    Its everlasting stain.

    “And well,” quoth he, “I know, for truth,

    Their pangs must be extreme,—

    Woe, woe, unutterable woe,—

    Who spill life’s sacred stream!

    For why? Methought, last night, I wrought

    A murder, in a dream!

    “One that had never done me wrong,

    A feeble man and old:

    I led him to a lonely field;

    The moon shone clear and cold:

    Now here, said I, this man shall die,

    And I will have his gold!

    “Two sudden blows with a ragged stick,

    And one with a heavy stone,

    One hurried gash with a hasty knife,—

    And then the deed was done;

    There was nothing lying at my foot

    But lifeless flesh and bone!

    “Nothing but lifeless flesh and bone,

    That could not do me ill;

    And yet I fear’d him all the more,

    For lying there so still:

    There was a manhood in his look,

    That murder could not kill.

    “And, lo! the universal air

    Seem’d lit with ghastly flame;

    Ten thousand dreadful eyes

    Were looking down in blame:

    I took the dead man by his hand,

    And call’d upon his name!

    “Oh, God! it made me quake to see

    Such sense within the slain!

    But when I touch’d the lifeless clay,

    The blood gush’d out amain!

    For ever clot, a burning spot

    Was scorching in my brain!

    “My head was like an ardent coal,

    My heart as solid ice;

    My wretched, wretched soul, I knew,

    Was at the Devil’s price;

    A dozen times I groan’d: the dead

    Had never groan’d but twice.

    “And now, from forth the frowning sky,

    From the Heaven’s topmost height,

    I heard a voice—the awful voice

    Of the blood-avenging sprite:

    ‘Thou guilty man! take up thy dead

    And hide it from my sight!’

    “I took the dreary body up,

    And cast it in a stream,

    A sluggish water, black as ink,

    The depth was so extreme:—

    My gentle Boy, remember this

    Is nothing but a dream!

    “Down went the corse with hollow plunge

    And vanish’d in the pool;

    Anon I cleans’d my bloody hands,

    And wash’d my forehead cool,

    And sat among the urchins young,

    That evening in the school.

    “Oh, Heaven! to think of their white souls,

    And mine so black and grim!

    I could not share in childish prayer

    Nor join in Evening Hymn:

    Like a Devil of the Pit I seem’d,

    ’Mid holy Cherubim!

    “And peace went with them, one and all,

    And each calm pillow spread;

    But Guilt was my grim Chamberlain

    That lighted me to bed,

    And drew my midnight curtains round,

    With fingers bloody red!

    “All night I lay in agony,

    In anguish dark and deep,

    My fever’d eyes I dar’d not close,

    But star’d aghast at Sleep:

    For Sin had render’d unto her

    The keys of hell to keep.

    “All night I lay in agony,

    From weary chime to chime,

    With one besetting horrid hint,

    That rack’d me all the time;

    A mighty yearning like the first

    Fierce impulse unto crime;

    “One stern tyrannic thought, that made

    All other thoughts its slave:

    Stronger and stronger every pulse

    Did that temptation crave,

    Still urging me to go and see

    The Dead Man in his grave!

    “Heavily I rose up, as soon

    As light was in the sky,

    And sought the black accursed pool

    With a wild misgiving eye:

    And I saw the Dead in the river bed,

    For the faithless stream was dry.

    “Merrily rose the lark, and shook

    The dew-drop from its wing;

    But I never mark’d its morning flight,

    I never heard it sing,

    For I was stooping once again

    Under the horrid thing.

    “With breathless speed, like a soul in chase,

    I took him up and ran;

    There was no time to dig a grave

    Before the day began:

    In a lonesome wood, with heaps of leaves,

    I hid the murder’d man.

    “And all that day I read in school,

    But my thought was other where;

    As soon as the mid-day task was done,

    In secret I was there;

    And a mighty wind had swept the leaves,

    And still the corse was bare!

    “Then down I cast me on my face,

    And first began to weep,

    For I knew my secret then was one

    That earth refus’d to keep:

    Or land or sea, though he should be

    Ten thousand fathoms deep.

    “So wills the fierce avenging Sprite,

    Till blood for blood atones!

    Aye, though he ’s buried in a cave,

    And trodden down with stones,

    And years have rotted off his flesh,—

    The world shall see his bones.

    “Oh, God! that horrid, horrid dream

    Besets me now awake!

    Again—again, with dizzy brain,

    The human life I take;

    And my red right hand grows raging hot,

    Like Cranmer’s at the stake.

    “And still no peace for the restless clay

    Will have or mould allow;

    The horrid thing pursues my soul,—

    It stands before me now!”

    The fearful Boy look’d up, and saw

    Huge drops upon his brow.

    That very night, while gentle sleep

    The urchin eyelids kiss’d,

    Two stern-faced men set out from Lynn,

    Through the cold and heavy mist;

    And Eugene Aram walk’d between,

    With gyves upon his wrist.