“The Prisoner” by Emily Brontë, a haunting & mystical poem

The complete poems of Emily Bronte

“The Prisoner” is perhaps one of the best known of the achingly beautiful, haunting poems by Emily Brontë, the English author best known for her only novel, Wuthering Heights.

Of the three literary Brontë sisters — Charlotte, Anne, and Emily,—it was always, from the start was, the latter who was regarded as the most brilliant poet, perhaps even the greatest genius among them.

“The Prisoner” was one of the poems included in the volume of poetry the sisters, led by Charlotte, printed at their own expense as a way to break into the world of publishing. Poems of Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Published in 1846, it sold a pathetic two copies.

Charlotte, however, was undaunted; it was not long after that each of the sisters saw their first novels come into print. Emily’s Wuthering Heights (1847) wasn’t universally well received and hardly met with the success of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre. It would be many years after Emily’s untimely death at age thirty that it would become a classic of English literature.

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Bronte sisters

The Brontë sisters, in a painting by their brother, Branwell.
Charlotte wrote much about their paths to publication
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“The Prisoner” is a poem built around a mysterious story of a beautiful woman being held captive in a dungeon who seems undaunted by her situation.  Consisting of sixteen stanzas, the four-line quatrains have a rhyming pattern.

How did Emily Brontë conjure the unlikely scenario of a female prisoner in a dungeon? Is the story completely metaphorical, or is it somehow an outgrown of the fantasy world of Gondal that she and Anne constructed?

Here are two analyses of “The Prisoner” presenting various points of views:

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Emily Bronte stamp

Emily Brontë’s Poetry: A 19th-Century Analysis
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The Prisoner by Emily Brontë

A FRAGMENT

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.

‘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.

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?’

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 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.’

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.

‘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.’

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!

‘Still, let my tyrants know, I am not doomed to wear
Year after year in gloom, and desolate despair;
A messenger of Hope comes every night to me,
And offers for short life, eternal liberty.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘Oh! 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.

‘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!’

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.

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The Complete Poems of Emily Bronte

Emily Brontë page on Amazon*
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