The Captive Dove by Anne Brontë

Art is nearly always about the abstract. One of the best things about poetry is its fantastic capability to enable words to describe scenes that words could not otherwise describe. When Anne Brontë recites The Captive Dove, she is explaining emotion in such a way that can’t be easily expressed without the titular metaphor. It would be easy to write off the dictionary’s definition of (to use one example from the poem) loneliness, but that lacks the emotional connection brought about by the artful metaphors, vivid images, and choice words that empower and inform this poem, for the reader to contemplate, and to feel the complicated emotion that Brontë was surely feeling to inform such an in-depth piece as The Captive Dove.

 

The Captive Dove Analysis

Poor restless dove, I pity thee;

And when I hear thy plaintive moan,

I mourn for thy captivity,

And in thy woes forget mine own.

To see thee stand prepared to fly,

And flap those useless wings of thine,

And gaze into the distant sky,

Would melt a harder heart than mine.

The poem begins in its longest verse, twice as long as the other quatrains, describing an individual, the speaker, who is examining a dove inside a cage. The description of the dove as being restless brings to mind the image of it flapping its wings uselessly, wanting more space to roam around in. For the speaker, it’s a heartbreaking enough sight to make them forget about their own worries and troubles — at least they have freedom of movement! The bird tries, relentlessly, to fly, and is incapable of doing so. It is a sad sight, and a powerful image to begin the poem with. Doves are typically seen as being a symbol of peace or hope; they are a wild animal of no danger to warrant imprisonment, and it seems that this one is locked in a cage for no particular reason at all.

In vain ­in vain! Thou canst not rise:

Thy prison roof confines thee there;

Its slender wires delude thine eyes,

And quench thy longings with despair.

The speaker continues to observe the bird, taking careful note of the details surrounding it; the bars of its prison are thin enough that it believes it can escape if it only continues to try. The speaker feels the despair emanating from the creature as it wants nothing more than to escape. It is notable that the speaker uses an old-style English dialect, presumably with the intention of heightening the dramatic emotion crafted into the speaker’s words. In particular, “And quench thy longings with despair” is a deeply melancholic line, heightened by its own flow and sense of deep intricacy and care.

Oh, thou wert made to wander free

In sunny mead and shady grove,

And, far beyond the rolling sea,

In distant climes, at will to rove!

The speaker continues their own observation of the bird, contrasting the melancholy of the previous verses with images of sun, shade, rolling sea, and distant regions (a “clime” is a region notable for its climate). The natural imagery reminds the speaker of the dove’s natural habitats, and more importantly, of its natural freedom to fly and to roam wherever it wishes. The alliterations used in this verse, minor as they are (“wert and wander” in the first line, “sunny” and “shady” in the second, and, even more minor, “far” and “rolling” in the third) help the verse to flow in a natural and pleasant way, increasing the effectiveness of the desired and ideal world for the dove to live in.

Yet, hadst thou but one gentle mate

Thy little drooping heart to cheer,

And share with thee thy captive state,

Thou couldst be happy even there.

At this point, the speaker wonders about the comforts of companionship in captivity. If the bird was not alone in its cage, but rather had a good friend or partner in the cage with them, its heart would not droop, but cheer, bringing to mind an old cliché, that misery loves company. More importantly, it is entirely possible that the bird might even enjoy its captivity, if it was sharing it with a friend. One captive bird would be miserable, they think; two captive birds together could be happy.

Yes, even there, if, listening by,

One faithful dear companion stood,

While gazing on her full bright eye,

Thou mightst forget thy native wood.

The primary idea that seems to be conveyed in this second-last verse is embodied in its final line. It is possible, the speaker thinks, that the bird might even forget where it came from, its physical home and world, if it lived in good company in captivity. It seems that the idea is that home is where friends and family are more so than where structures and objects are. If the bird was with its mate, regardless of where, it could be perfectly at home, and perfectly happy to be there. It’s an interesting argument that brings to mind the idea of abstract captivity that people live in everyday, whether it’s the idea of mortality or society that keeps people “trapped.” In this scenario, having a friend by your side is more important for getting on with life than a sturdy house or the capacity to travel.

But thou, poor solitary dove,

Must make, unheard, thy joyless moan;

The heart, that Nature formed to love,

Must pine, neglected, and alone.

Unfortunately, none of that last paragraph is true for the captive dove, who continues its struggle alone in its cage. The speaker reflects, on last time, on the idea that it is a creature born from nature to be a social animal and a free one as well, and that binding it in a cage removes both of those intentions from its life. It’s a tragedy to the speaker, who seems powerless to intervene and rescue this unfortunate creature.


The Captive Dove can be read as an analogy into the social nature of humans. Like doves, humans are social animals with significant freedom of movement. Many people do not enjoy remaining in the same place for too long, and many others prefer not to stay inside for long periods of time. It is easy to relate to the dove in the poem, understanding that captivity is one of the most maddening punishments there can be for such social beings. And yet, a good friend or family member can make all the difference in the world, can turn a bad day into a good one, and replace feelings of fear or loneliness with joy and solidarity. The power of friendship is something that can’t be understated, but this is often not something we can realize until we’ve been locked away in a small cage, left only to pine, neglected and alone.

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Related poetry:   Past Days by Anne Brontë

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