After the Trial
By Weldon Kees
Hearing the judges’ well-considered sentence,
The prisoner saw long plateaus of guilt,
And thought of all the dismal furnished rooms
The past assembled, the eyes of parents
Staring through walls as though forever
To condemn and wound his innocence.
And if I raise my voice, to protest my innocence,
The judges won’t revoke their sentence.
I could stand screaming in this box forever,
Leaving them deaf to everything but guilt;
All the machinery of law devised by parents
Could not be stopped though fire swept the rooms.
Whenever my thoughts move to all those rooms
I sat alone in, capable of innocence,
I know now I was not alone, that parents
Always were there to speak the hideous sentence:
“You are our son; be good; we know your guilt;
We stare through walls and see your thoughts forever.”
Sometimes I wished to go away forever;
I dreamt of strangers and of stranger rooms
Where every corner held the light of guilt.
Why do the judges stare? I saw no innocence
In them when they pronounced the sentence;
I heard instead the believing voice of parents.
I can remember evenings when my parents
Settling my future happily forever,
Would frown before they spoke the sentence:
“Someday the time will come to leave these rooms
Where, under our watchful eyes, you have been innocent;
Remember us before you seize the world of guilt.”
Their eyes burn. How can I deny my guilt
When I am guilty in the sight of parents?
I cannot think that even they were innocent.
At least I shall not have to wait forever
To be escorted to the silent rooms
Where darkness promises a final sentence.
We walk forever to the doors of guilt,
Pursued by our own sentences and eyes of parents,
Never to enter innocent and quiet rooms.
In the first stanza, we get an image of a criminal in court, who has just received his “sentence” or punishment from the judges. We don’t know why he’s there exactly, except we do know he’s there to defend his innocence, and we also know he has been condemned. In the second line, “long plateaus of guilt” shows the prisoner feels like his guilt is inescapable. The “dismal furnished rooms//the past assembled” are symbols for the speaker’s innocence. “Dismal” shows he had little hope in these rooms, and that he felt he wasn’t innocent enough. The third person point of view seems to give the first stanza a sort of detachment, which becomes more personal when the second stanza shifts to first person.
In the second stanza, the speaker communicates the hopelessness of his situation by saying they can’t even fight the decision. “The judges won’t revoke their sentence,” and they are “deaf to anything but guilt.” I find this similar to the way we tend to judge people. Once someone does something bad, everyone knows, and we can’t even imagine that this person could do something good. We paste the label “guilty” on their foreheads and won’t even give them a second chance. The use of judges, plural, also makes me think that maybe this is referring to the collective of grown-up society. The speaker goes on to conclude the stanza by declaring that all the rules the parents put in place still couldn’t keep him from his guilt, or the “fire [that] swept the rooms.” In the following stanza, the speaker goes on to communicate that his parents know what’s inside his rooms, they know if he’s guilty or innocent. He may be judged by members of society, or actual judges in a court, but his parents actually know.
“I dreamt of strangers and of stranger rooms // where every corner held the light of guilt.” Here the speaker wishes to escape his own guilt, and so he thinks of “rooms” that are more guilty than his own. This is similar to how one might compare one’s self to another, thinking that they are worse than you and so you feel better about yourself. Ironically, the speaker addresses this hypocrisy indirectly when he says “I saw no innocence// in them when they pronounced the sentence,” and also when he says he “cannot think that even [his parents] were innocent.” The speaker says here that the judges and his parents aren’t innocent either. So would that not make them hypocrites? Perhaps they are not guilty in the same way the speaker is, but isn’t guilt still guilt regardless of what variety it is? We’re all guilty, and we all mess up, so how can we judge another? He seems to be a bit double-sided when it comes to this issue.
The fifth stanza shifts in tone as it goes backward in time. The tone seems to go from heavy and condemned to a bit more nostalgic. The image is brighter in this stanza, with words like “future,” which is promising, and “happily.” “Under our watchful eyes, you have been innocent,” addresses how in childhood, the speaker’s parents kept him innocent, and kept his rooms “clean.” They were there to set down rules and regulations to keep him from becoming guilty, and warned him to “remember” them and these rules so that he wouldn’t “seize the world of guilt” or do something dreadfully wrong when on his own. They lovingly brought him up and established rules to keep him in line, in the hopes that he would continue to follow these rules as he grew. The next stanza represents another terrifying shift in tone with “their eyes burn.” These parents who raised him lovingly now regard him with contempt, or so the speaker thinks, for probably disappointing them. It also shows that the speaker did not follow their rules when they stopped regulating his rooms of innocence. The speaker’s attitude towards his innocence has changed. In the second stanza, he wanted to scream and defend it, but felt it would be fruitless to do so. Here, he feels he “can[not] deny [his] guilt” because his parents see him as guilty too, and after all, they know him. If they think he is guilty, then he has to be. When only the judges seemed to think he was guilty, there was still a chance of innocence. But it seems that once he has dishonored his family, then he truly feels guilty.
The last few lines tie up the sestina, by generalizing the message with the use of “we”. It says that we always blame ourselves, and count ourselves guilty. We “walk” willingly into these guilty “rooms,” chased by things we blame ourselves for, or rules of our parents’ which we have broken. Even if your parents never know you broke the rules, their voice will still be in your head condemning you. And it is this condemnation, and this self-inflicted guilt that will keep us from innocence, peace, and true freedom.