‘The Prisoner’ by Emily Brontë was published in 1846 in the collection Poems By Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. This was a work co-authored by her sisters, Anne and Charlotte. It was during this period of time the three Brontë women wrote under the names, Currer (Charlotte), Ellis, (Emily) and Acton (Anne). They chose these names in an effort to obscure the fact they were women and hopefully have their work taken more seriously.
The Prisoner is a sixteen stanza poem separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a rhyming pattern of aabb ccdd, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit. The sing-song-like sounds this pattern creates lightens the initially dark tone. It also adds to the moments of joy in the second half. The captive’s words rhyme perfectly, making her statements all the more impactful.
Summary of The Prisoner
The poem begins with the speaker describing how he went down into the dungeons. He commanded the doors be opened and he looked in on the darkness. The speaker clearly has some authority here and maintains that as he addresses the warder. From this point on the majority of the narrative is focused around one “captive” held in the dungeon. This person is a young woman who appears pure, beautiful, and unconcerned by her situation.
In warder is bothered by the woman’s appearance. She is not as downtrodden as she should be. The woman speaks to the listener and the warder. She tells them that she is not unhappy, as she knows she won’t be trapped in this place forever. Soon, she will be set free.
When she is questioned about how this could be the case, she tells about her nightly visits. As she sleeps she is visited by Hope. It tells her that her short life will be rewarded in Heaven. This fact keeps her in good spirits. She does not see the point in crying or mourning as it will not save her or her imprisoned “kindred.”
The following sections are used to describe the details of her dreams. They show her what her life will be like in heaven. There will be mute sounds that soothe her. All knowledge will be revealed and truths shown. The poem concludes with the speaker mourning the moments she returns to her waking life. They bring her a great deal of pain.
The last lines show that the speaker has a new understanding of his captive. He has also seen that man’s rule can be “overuled” by heaven.
Explore more Emily Brontë poems.
Analysis of The Prisoner
In the dungeon-crypts idly did I stray,
Reckless of the lives wasting there away;
“Draw the ponderous bars! open, Warder stern!”
He dared not say me nay–the hinges harshly turn.
The first stanza of this piece begins with the speaker entering into the crypt, or deepest level, of a dungeon. Without further details, a reader is already able to assume some basics about the setting. It will likely be cold, dark, dirty, and overwhelmingly unpleasant. The speaker does not enter with one purpose in mind but instead he “idly” strayed through the corridors. He is comfortable here and looks on the prisoners with disdain and recklessness.
The third line of this stanza is spoken out loud. He demands the bars be opened by the “Warder.” He is “stern” looking, but does as the speaker requests. The speaker has power in this place as imbued by the “master” of the dungeons.
“Our guests are darkly lodged,” I whisper’d, gazing through
The vault, whose grated eye showed heaven more gray than blue;
(This was when glad Spring laughed in awaking pride;)
“Ay, darkly lodged enough!” returned my sullen guide.
In the second stanza, the narrator once more speaks out loud. He passes judgment on the dungeon, stating that the prisoners, or as he calls them, “guests” are lodged “darkly.” This is an important line for the narrative as it increases the power he has over the scene. The prisoners belong to him in someway.
There is a “vault” above the speaker and his “guide,” the warder. It opens up to the sky which was more “gray than blue.” Even the outside world is tainted by the darkness of the crypt. It was there, outside the grate, that “Spring” is able to “laugh” without confinement.
The warder replies to the speaker. He tells him that yes, the prisoners are kept in enough darkness.
Then, God forgive my youth; forgive my careless tongue;
I scoffed, as the chill chains on the damp flagstones rung:
“Confined in triple walls, art thou so much to fear,
That we must bind thee down and clench thy fetters here?”
In the third stanza of ‘The Prisoner,’ the speaker begins by asking that God forgive him what he said next. He is telling this tale from some future point and is now able to see what he said was wrong.
The speaker “scoffed” at the chains and the “damp flagstones.” He speaks out loud again, asking if the prisoners are really so dangerous. Is it necessary he asks, that they must be kept behind three walls and underground? Do they need to be bound and trapped in “fetters here?”
The captive raised her face; it was as soft and mild
As sculptured marble saint, or slumbering unwean’d child;
It was so soft and mild, it was so sweet and fair,
Pain could not trace a line, nor grief a shadow there!
The fourth stanza turns to one of the prisoners. She is referred to as a “captive.” This change of terminology makes it seem as if she is simply being kept against her will. One might infer she has not done anything wrong. The girl raises her head to look at the speaker and appears like a “sculpt[ed] marble saint.”
Her complexion is so clear and pure. There is no grief or pain to be seen. These phrases are all meant to evoke immediate empathy from the reader and make one wonder how the girl came to be there.
The captive raised her hand and pressed it to her brow;
“I have been struck,” she said, “and I am suffering now;
Yet these are little worth, your bolts and irons strong;
And, were they forged in steel, they could not hold me long.”
The young woman who is imprisoned in the dungeon now talks to the speaker and the warder. She describes how she has “been struck” and is now “suffering.” This line has a double meaning. The girl has been “struck” by bad luck, certainly, but as she will describe later on, by grace.
Although she is clearly in a very bad way, she tells the warder that his “bolts and irons” are of “little worth.” They are not going to be able to “hold” onto her for long. One way or another she’ll get out. The “steel” is nothing compared to her will.
Hoarse laughed the jailor grim: “Shall I be won to hear;
Dost think, fond, dreaming wretch, that I shall grant thy prayer?
Or, better still, wilt melt my master’s heart with groans?
Ah! sooner might the sun thaw down these granite stones.
The jailor does not care to hear the optimism of the captive. He laughs at her statement and wonders if he has to listen to her “dreaming” statements. The warder tells her that he will never “grant [her] prayer” no matter what she says. There is no way that she could “melt” his “master’s heart” with her “groans.” Whoever is in charge of the dungeon is as unfeeling as the warder is.
There is so little chance of either of these things happening that the sun will “sooner…thaw down these granite stones.” He thinks she better stop hoping now as there is no one to let her out.
“My master’s voice is low, his aspect bland and kind,
But hard as hardest flint the soul that lurks behind;
And I am rough and rude, yet not more rough to see
Than is the hidden ghost that has its home in me.”
The seventh stanza is made up of the warder’s description of his master. It is meant to finally convince the girl that she will not be getting out. He is described as being “bland and kind” but also “hard as hardest flint.” The master is cold and seemingly made of stone, just as his prison is.
The warder also describes himself as being “rough and rude.” Between the master and his employee, the girl finds herself in a very bad situation.
About her lips there played a smile of almost scorn,
“My friend,” she gently said, “you have not heard me mourn;
When you my kindred’s lives, MY lost life, can restore,
Then may I weep and sue,–but never, friend, before!
The eighth stanza of ‘The Prisoner’ returns to the voice of the girl who has not been put off by everything she’s heard. Although she should be exhausted and disappointed, there is a smile around her lips of “almost scorn.” She speaks to the warder again, telling him that he has never heard her “mourn” her situation.
There has not been a moment during her imprisonment that she has turned to tears. She does not see the point in crying as it would not restore her own life, or those of her “kindred.” If it could, she would surely cry until everything was fixed. This young woman’s strength in this very bad situation is admirable and surprising. It might make one even more curious what it is that placed her in this situation.
“Still, let my tyrants know, I am not doomed to wearYear after year in gloom, and desolate despair;
A messenger of Hope comes every night to me,
And offers for short life, eternal liberty.
She continues to speak in the next stanzas. She tells the warder that he should go and tell her “tyrants,” the master, and all those like him that she is not doomed. The captive will not be stuck “Year after year in gloom and desolate despair.” Her life is going to change.
The next two lines describe why she knows this to be the case. Every night she is visited by a “messenger of Hope.” This force comes to her “every night” and offers her “eternal liberty” for a life cut short. There is a deal occurring here where the captive sacrifices herself for some greater good and is rewarded later in Heaven. This is how she knows she is not going to remain in the dungeon for eternity. One day she will be received by God.
“He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars.
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire,
And visions rise, and change, that kill me with desire.
In the tenth stanza the speaker further describes how the “Hope” she experience makes her feel. “He,” a reference to both God and the force of Hope, comes to her with the “western winds.” He is connected to the air, stars, and heavens. These are the features of the world that carry him.
She knows that Hope is coming for her when the “Winds take a pensive tone.” Her heart is filled at these times and “visions rise.” When she looks into her own future she is almost killed “with desire.”
“Desire for nothing known in my maturer years,
When Joy grew mad with awe, at counting future tears.
When, if my spirit’s sky was full of flashes warm,
I knew not whence they came, from sun or thunder-storm.
The desire that the speaker feels has nothing to do with her human life. It is not attached to the “maturer years” she might live. In fact, the speaker knows she will not live to those years. If she was to reach them she would experience her own “Joy” growing “mad with awe” at the sorrow to come.
The speaker’s imagined days of old age are not worth living. She would not longer be able to distinguish where “flashes warm” come from. The “sun” and the “thunder-storm” would mean the same thing to her.
“But, first, a hush of peace–a soundless calm descends;
The struggle of distress, and fierce impatience ends;
Mute music soothes my breast–unuttered harmony,
That I could never dream, till Earth was lost to me.
Before the speaker ever makes her way to old age a “hush of peace” will descend over her. The “calm” will be “soundless.” Every bit of suffering she went through previously will be gone. Her “impatience” for this life will “end.”
The captive is describing what it will be like when she finally enters Heaven. She sees it as being a place fill with “Mute music.” There is no sound, but nonetheless, the feeling of the place will “soothe” her. The environment will be “harmony.” The young woman knows that whatever she imagines heaven to be will be nothing compared to what it actually is. “Earth” will be “lost” to her, but she won’t care.
“Then dawns the Invisible; the Unseen its truth reveals;
My outward sense is gone, my inward essence feels:
Its wings are almost free–its home, its harbour found,
Measuring the gulph, it stoops and dares the final bound,
She continues on the same path in the next stanza. The powers of God and the “Unseen” will be revealed to her. There will no longer be a need for her “outward sense[s].” Instead, her “inward essence” will be all that feels.
The captive knows she has almost reached this point. Her “wings are almost free” from the prison. No matter what it might seem like, in regards to her physical body, her soul will soon transcend the prison. The captive is now caught up in her own ecstasy. She is no longer looking for a response from the speaker and the warden. They look on without interacting.
Her soul is so prepared for the next step, she can feel it daring the “final bound.” She is ready to bridge the final “gulph” of life.
“Oh I dreadful is the check–intense the agony–
When the ear begins to hear, and the eye begins to see;
When the pulse begins to throb, the brain to think again;
The soul to feel the flesh, and the flesh to feel the chain.
In the fourteenth stanza of ‘The Prisoner,’ the speaker states what it is like when she is roused from her dreams of Hope. It is a “dreadful” experience. When she once again hears, sees, and feels her beating heart, there is “intense…agony.”
Her flesh feels as if it is a part of the chain that keeps her in prison. Her bodily confinement does impact her and it is on her dreams she depends to stay hopeful.
“Yet I would lose no sting, would wish no torture less;
The more that anguish racks, the earlier it will bless;
And robed in fires of hell, or bright with heavenly shine,
If it but herald death, the vision is divine!”
The young captive concludes her speech in the fifteenth stanza. She states that even though her real life is torture, she wouldn’t change it. There is no force that could make her give up her place in heaven.
In the last lines, she speaks of the coming of death. She knows that it could come “robed in fires of hell, or bright with heavenly shine.” Either way, she will welcome it.
She ceased to speak, and we, unanswering, turned to go–
We had no further power to work the captive woe:
Her cheek, her gleaming eye, declared that man had given
A sentence, unapproved, and overruled by Heaven.
The sixteenth stanza of ‘The Prisoner‘ returns the narrative to the original speaker. He and the warden are stunned by what they have heard and turn to go. They do not have any power to speak over the captive. They know there is nothing they could do to “work” her “woe.”
The last lines show that the speaker really did understand what the captive was saying. He saw in her an unalterable fact, that man’s rule had been swapped for “Heaven[’s].” The master has no true power over her.