‘In the Prison Pen’ is a five stanza poem written by the poet and novelist Herman Melville. It was first published in 1854. The second and fourth lines of each stanza rhyme.
The poem is made out of twenty short lines punctuated by dashes and semi-colons. This provides the reader with a number of places in which to pause and slow down the reading of the poem.
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Summary of In the Prison Pen
‘In the Prison Pen’ describes the life of a prisoner who is unable to recall his past life and is haunted by his present and future. The subject of this poem is standing within the prison staring at the walls and sentries that surround him. His world is confined to this “barren” beach. The sun beats down on him and he has nothing to do and his hands are “vacant” and without meaning. Around the speaker are ghosts that are representative of his past life he can no longer remember as well as those that have been in the prison before him.
There are two endings to this piece, the first allows the prisoner to find some meager safety within a “lair” dug by those that have come before him and died. The second ending finds the speaker passing out in the sun and being pressed and walled in by the throngs of people until he dies. They deliver him forward, presenting his lessened state to the world.
Analysis of In the Prison Pen
Listless he eyes the palisades
And sentries in the glare;
’Tis barren as a pelican-beach—
But his world is ended there.
‘In the Prison Pen’ begins in the middle of a poignant moment. The main subject of this poem, the prisoner, is in the prison yard, gazing up at the “palisades.” In this context, “palisades” is referring both to the physical prison walls that surround the land and those that the prisoner has created in his mind, blocking him from his past life.
He watches, “listeless[ly],” without motivation, or any particular intent. He has seen this sight before. He stares at the “palisades” and at the “sentries” that are standing in the “glare” of the sun that is beating down on the prison. The prisoner is contained within an environment that walls him in, and currently, punishes him from above with the heat of the sun.
The speaker of the poem is an omniscient narrator, meaning that he/she can see into the mind of the speaker, but he/she is not impacted by his emotions, he/she can describe events objectively.
The area surrounding the prisoner is described as being as “barren as a pelican-beach” but it is the prisoner’s entire world. It begins and ends with the walls and the barren ground. It is now all he knows.
Nothing to do; and vacant hands
Bring on the idiot-pain;
He tries to think—to recollect,
But the blur is on his brain.
The second stanza continues elaborating on the prisoner’s mental state and physical circumstances.
The man has “nothing to do,” and his hands are “vacant.” They hold nothing, as he is not allowed to do anything productive, and his hands create no meaning. They do nothing that means anything to him.
This states “Bring[s] on the idiot-pain.” There are a number of different ways in which this line can be interpreted, but most clearly, it can mean that the “vacant” nature of his hands brings on the pain of memory. He is unable to recall when his hands were not this way and his life was something different. This interpretation is backed up by the rest of the stanza.
The prisoner “tries to think” or find some recollection of his past, but his brain has been taken over by a blur, obscuring his thoughts.
Around him swarm the plaining ghosts
Like those on Virgil’s shore—
A wilderness of faces dim,
And pale ones gashed and hoar.
The poem continues speaking on the life in which the speaker is currently living. Metaphorically, around the speaker “swarm the plaining ghosts.” The ghosts around him are crying and lamenting their fate. They are compared to the ghosts in the epic poem, The Aeneid, written by Virgil, in which the ghosts of Troy and Carthage metaphorically haunt and inspire the entire piece.
The ghosts are not physically present around the prisoner, but he can see their wild faces, making up an unruly and dangerous landscape before him. That is the only future he has to look forward to. The ghost are frightening, they are described as “pale, “gashed,” and “hoar,” (or turning grey with age).
A smiting sun. No shed, no tree;
He totters to his lair—
A den that sick hands dug in earth
Ere famine wasted there,
The fourth stanza of ‘In the Prison Pen’ gives the reader even more description of what the prisoner is experiencing. There is no shade around him, nothing to cast a shadow, only a “smiting sun.” The prisoner “totters” to his “lair,” the only protection that he has found in this landscape. It is said to have been dug by “sick hands,” those that came before him and were in the same shape he is, before they died.
Or, dropping in his place, he swoons,
Walled in by throngs that press,
Till forth from the throngs they bear him dead—
Dead in his meagerness.
The speaker presents a second possible ending to this story in which the prisoner drops where he is standing, having swooned from the feeling of being walled by the “thongs that press,” (the walls and other prisoners, as well as the ghosts in his head). He stays where he is, pressed by the throng, until he dies and they deliver him forward in his “meagerness.” Here, meagerness could mean “inadequacy.” He has become much less than he was before, having lost all of his past, and being pressed in by his current life circumstances.
About Herman Melville
Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819. Melville suffered from scarlet fever as a child from which he never fully recovered; his vision was permanently damaged. Beginning in 1839 Melville began to work on various merchant ships after not being able to find a job in New York. After various voyages, being captured by cannibals, and jail for mutiny, he decided to start putting down his stories on paper.
In 1847, Melville married Elizabeth Shaw, with whom he would eventually have four children and four years later he would write his most popular novel, Moby-Dick. It was not until after his death that his work would begin to receive critical acclaim. After delivering a series of lectures in the late 1850s, working as a customs inspector for the next 20 years, Melville died of a heart attack in 1891. He is now considered one of the greatest American writers.