When Anne Brontë wrote her poetry, she often wrote about things that were personal to her, that spoke to her on an emotional level and could resonate with others who felt similarly. In her youth, she also enjoyed writing fantasies with her sister, Emily, and these experiences were likely a strong basis for her literary works, novels such as Agnes Grey. In poems such as A Prisoner in a Dungeon Deep, she demonstrates how her strong capacity for storytelling could assert itself in any literary medium she chose. She weaves her own self in and out of each verse as a relatable narrator informing sympathetic characters and the resulting output is a poem well worth reading.
A Prisoner in a Dungeon Deep Analysis
A prisoner in a dungeon deep
Sat musing silently;
His head was rested on his hand,
His elbow on his knee.
The first verse introduces the reader to the central character of the poem and his setting; the first line, from which the title of the poem is derived, makes it fairly clear while also setting a few poetic conventions for the work. The alliteration of “dungeon deep” adds a particular flow to the line and gives precious connotation: a distinction is made between a “dungeon” and a “deep dungeon;” the latter suggesting that the man is imprisoned for a particularly grievous crime and is being distanced from the outside world as much as possible.
The remainder of the verse describes the man’s posture and actions. Even though only two lines are used, the body parts described are enough to imagine the entire pose; He is sitting, one hand on his face, the elbow of that hand leaning on his knee. The pose does not quite look like the musing suggested in the second line, but rather invokes an image of despair and gloom into the reader and the poem by association.
Turned he his thoughts to future times
Or are they backward cast?
For freedom is he pining now
Or mourning for the past?
The silent musing from the first verse is expanded upon here, as the imprisoned man thinks, it seems, about the nature of his own thinking. As a prisoner, it is natural to imagine him longing to be somewhere other than within the four walls of his cell, but he doesn’t know if by imagining himself outside, he is missing the past or desiring a future in which he is free. This implies that he has been imprisoned for quite some time, and no longer knows how to properly imagine life beyond his prison.
An interesting distinction is made between “pining” for freedom or “mourning” for his past. Wherever the man came from, he cannot go back, or he would not be mourning. His pining for the future is kept separate from returning to his past life, and if the two are mutually exclusive, it may be as a result of the cause of his imprisonment. This early in the poem, such notions are vague at best, but the implications and context do well to form a larger story around the words in each verse.
No, he has lived so long enthralled
Alone in dungeon gloom
That he has lost regret and hope,
Has ceased to mourn his doom.
The “no” that begins this third verse is penned as though in answer to the previous verse’s thought — “For freedom is he pining now / Or mourning for the past?” — and since the last line references mourning the past, it is likely that this is what “no” is being said to. The length of his imprisonment is not made clear, but it has been long enough that he no longer concerns himself with how he got there, and what he regrets, or wishes had been different. He is accepting of his fate and would likely prefer to look forwards the future than sit in his cell miserable over the past. This is a fairly straightforward verse in meaning. Brontë’s use of rhyming “doom” and “gloom” certainly contributes to the slowly emerging grim atmosphere for the piece.
He pines not for the light of day
Nor sighs for freedom now;
Such weary thoughts have ceased at length
To rack his burning brow.
As the last verse saw the man decided against mourning for his past, this verse sees him contemplating his potential freedom in the future. He decides that this is also an unreasonable wish, one that he keeps away from his thinking. Desires for freedom are described as racking his burning brow, suggesting that when he is distressed, thinking about freedom actually makes his situation worse instead of better. Rather than being a comfort, freedom is portrayed as false hope, something to be thought of as a thing that will never return. The word choice in this verse includes “sighs” for freedom; “weary” thoughts,” “rack,” and “burning brow.” Each of these puts a negative connotation on the entire concept.
Lost in a maze of wandering thoughts
He sits unmoving there;
That posture and that look proclaim
The stupor of despair.
The fifth verse of the poem serves largely to make most of the analysis up until this point redundant, as it states rather plainly that the man, in his prison cell, sits deep in thought, and everything about his being emits a “stupor of despair.” The word “stupor” suggests that he has been like this for some time, falling deeper and deeper into his own trap of desiring the past (mournful and distant), desiring the future (which feels like false hope to him), and desiring nothing (which haunts him presently). The last line of this verse serves to firmly establish that the atmosphere of his poem is not a happy one, but rather holds grim, despairing pall over the entirety of the piece.
Yet not for ever did that mood
Of sullen calm prevail;
There was a something in his eye
That told another tale.
The first two lines of the next verse describe the prisoner as being held by a “mood / of sullen calm,” which is an interesting aspect of his character to describe. While he is described as being firmly in the grasp of despair, his unmoving pose shows us that he remains calm outwardly, presumably because anger serves no purpose in a prison cell. The atmosphere of this verse leans closer to sullen calm than to despair, as it explains that he has not been this way for the entirety of his imprisonment. “There was a something in his eye / That told another tale” is an interesting wording for this concept; that there is “a” something in his eye suggests that there was a specific thing he was able to cling to in his imprisonment to keep himself from despair. This adds to the sense of time passed since his imprisonment, as the previous verses make it clear that this hope has long since eroded away.
It did not speak of reason gone,
It was not madness quite;
It was a fitful flickering fire,
A strange uncertain light.
The speaker of the poem treats this revelation as a need to assure the reader that the man was not “quite” insane when they were feeling this other emotion. It makes sense, based on his current state of mind, to think of any other as being cause to question his sanity; he seems to have rationalized his despair quite well. But this is described rather poetically as a “fitful flickering fire,” an alliterative phrase that emphasizes the fleeting and ambiguous nature of his feeling. This, coupled with “a strange uncertain light” seems to be an abstract way of describing a very pale and uncertain sense of hope.
And sooth to say, these latter years
Strange fancies now and then
Had filled his cell with scenes of life
And forms of living men.
The next verse goes on to detail what this uncertain light meant for the prisoner. The occasional “strange fancies” certainly sound like the madness that the previous verse denies; whether dreams or hallucinations, the man imagines other people in his cell with him, and other “scenes of life,” suggesting that he is sometimes active in these delusions, and sometimes observes them, seemingly from afar. And yet, this implies a release from his solitude and isolation, if for a little while, which may explain how these occurrences warded off his despair.
A mind that cannot cease to think
Why needs he cherish there?
Torpor may bring relief to pain
And madness to despair.
This verse seems to be an attempt at justifying the hallucinations introduced from the previous verse. “Why needs he cherish there?” is a line that suggests that the man doesn’t see his sanity as being a useful tool to have anymore, something to cherish because he no longer needs it; it’s been implied that he has been left alone for a very long time. “Torpor” is another way of saying “lethargy,” or “inactivity.” The man is suggesting that his pain can be numbed by his losing focus on the world and that his despair could be numbed in a similar fashion if he could no longer rationalize his situation. This is strangely logical considering the implied slip from sanity experienced by the speaker, but as has been made clear, he has all the time in the world for thinking about it.
Such wildering scenes, such flitting shapes
As feverish dreams display:
What if those fancies still increase
And reason quite decay?
Brontë’s word choice is particularly prevalent in driving this verse. Its meaning is rather ambiguous — the man seems to be wondering whether or not he still hallucinates or if he is only experiencing fever dreams — but the choice in words is what is striking here. “Feverish,” “fancies,” “decay;” all of these words imply a break from reality, from sanity. This is a verse heavily driven by the atmosphere, that continues to narrate inside the mind of the prisoner and bring to light his fading consciousness.
But hark, what sounds have struck his ear;
Voices of men they seem;
And two have entered now his cell;
Can this too be a dream?
With all that we have so far learned about the prisoner, it is unsurprising that the events described here are making the speaker question their sanity once more. The events are fairly straightforward: he hears the distant sounds of men, two of whom enter his prison cell to regard him. He wonders idly whether or not this is a hallucination, a dream, or reality, but has no way to tell which it may be.
‘Orlando, hear our joyful news:
Revenge and liberty!
Your foes are dead, and we are come
At last to set you free.’
The two men speak to the prisoner, calling him by name — Orlando — and telling him of “revenge and liberty;” that they are here to release him from his cell and return him into the world. Of course, this has been discussed in previous verses, both that Orlando feels that dreaming of release is a waste of time and that he once hallucinated life into his cell to escape his solitary confinement. To be hearing exactly what he dares not wish to hear must surely be giving him pause.
In this verse, we also learn that Orlando is a prisoner of war and that he is held captive not by a greater society for some crime, but as an enemy combatant of some kind, which explains his belief that he would never be released willingly. There is no indication given, however, as to whether or not he is experiencing reality during this rescue.
So spoke the elder of the two,
And in the captive’s eyes
He looked for gleaming ecstasy
But only found surprise.
‘My foes are dead! It must be then
That all mankind are gone.
For they were all my deadly foes
And friends I had not one.’
The final two verses of the poem are self-explanatory in meaning — the men, expecting joy from Orlando receive disbelief from him instead, as he explains that all of his enemies could not possibly be gone, because he had no friends, to begin within his freedom. The second-to-last verse is written from the perspective of one of the two rescuers, which implies that they may in fact be real beings who did not forget him as the years went by. The final verse, on the other hand, implies that Orlando believes he is hallucinating once more, because he does not react with any kind of joy or desire, but rather offers an almost philosophical musing about whether the absence of friendship indicates a foe.
Anne Brontë’s work tells a very simple story that touches on a number of interesting themes; the importance of social action is explored, along with the tenuous balance between reality in a person’s mind, and the reality shared by all. Sanity is an interesting concept, especially when explored through the eyes of a lone individual one who exists in a group. Orlando, in this poem, is unable to distinguish between a true rescue and an imagined one and does not know what to make of either occurrence because of how long it has been since he has wished for his freedom. Whether or not it is a true rescue is not something that is definitively stated — and how could it be a good poem without something being left open for interpretation? — but the state of Orlando’s mind, for years left all alone in a cell, makes for a fascinating story, and a welcome invitation to do a little thinking with minds that can comprehend that tenuous grasp Brontë so uniquely explores.