Toru Dutt: Poetry

Toru Dutt: Poetry Summary and Analysis of "The Young Captive"


The poem "The Young Captive" is from Dutt's A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields (1876), and is a translation of an André Chénier poem. It is based on the real experiences of Chénier when he was imprisoned during the French Revolution, and it describes a speaker, himself in prison, who spends the main body of the text recounting the sorrows he has overheard from a fellow captive. This fellow captive, a young woman, talks at length about her fears, the minor consolations offered to her by hope, her sadness at how young she has been greeted by death, and her desire for death to instead plague someone more dejected. After this young woman, who is the figure represented by the title, finishes speaking about her grievances, the poem offers two conclusory stanzas. In the penultimate stanza, we are told about the speaker overhearing and composing poetry out of the foregoing sorrows. In the last stanza, the speaker looks to the future and says that this account should inspire his audience to treasure life as a "gift" from heaven.


The poem is a narrative poem in fifty-four lines, written in nine stanzas of six lines each. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is a rhyming couplet, followed by a quatrain in enclosed rhyme (with the first and fourth lines rhyming, and the second and third lines rhyming). It does not repeat end rhymes, and its rhyme scheme is thus of the form AABCCB DDEFFE GGHIIH JJKLLK MMNOON PPQRRQ SSTUUT VVWXXW YYZ**Z.

The first stanza uses the metaphor of shoots and grapes—which continue to grow, despite their eventual death in being harvested—to shed light on the uniqueness of the young woman's fear of death.

In the second stanza, the young woman continues to express her fear of death, then suddenly pivots in line 9 to reflect a changed perspective, one that understands the world as a place of mixed joy and sadness, with one being impossible without the other. As part of this change in perspective, the young woman uses the metaphor of an ocean always being accompanied by storms to show that even the most beautiful and tranquil scenes are tainted sometimes by violence and chaos.

In the third stanza, the woman speaks of the vain hopes of freedom that keep her afloat, and she expresses this hope with the metaphor of a bird freeing a fowler.

In the fourth stanza, the young woman speaks of the peace that sleep brings, and her eventual dejection upon waking to find that she is imprisoned.

The next two stanzas express the young woman's lament that she will die in captivity and at a young age. In the fifth stanza, the woman uses the metaphor of life as a grand banquet at which she has barely feasted to suggest that her death will be premature. Similarly, in the sixth stanza, the woman compares life to a harvest, suggesting that she has only seen the early light of morning and now must wait for death in the form of evening.

In the seventh stanza—the last spoken by the woman—a direct address (an apostrophe) is given to Death, and the woman says that Death ought to wait to take her from this world, since there are still many places she would like to see.

The following stanzas follow a poet, the true speaker of the poem, who informs us that he composed this poem in response to hearing these words from the captive, whom he is imprisoned with. The final stanza shows the speaker refusing to tell us the young woman's name, but he does close by telling us of the woman's grace, her spirit, and the role he sees for himself and his poem in teaching an audience about the value of life.

This core narrative already raises interesting questions about the tense relationship between the speaker and the subject of the poem, the young woman. Are the words presented in the poem intended to be an exact rendition of the woman's laments in jail, or does the speaker-poet figure take liberties while rendering these laments in poetic form? Is the poem meant to represent the lyric outpouring of emotion, as is suggested throughout and in the penultimate stanza, or is it meant to convey a moral lesson, as is suggested in the last stanza? The poem does not offer much in terms of a definite answer, but such tension provides solid ground upon which to anchor different thematic interpretations of the text.

Besides this conceptual puzzle, however, there is much to interpret and analyze with respect to the poem's content. The woman's engagement of "the bird" who "escapes from the net of the fowler" and sings—as well as her comparison of the self to grapes, shoots, and a harvest—suggest that the woman yearns to be immersed in nature again and sees herself as deeply in touch with natural cycles and processes. Her description of life as a banquet conveys both a certain sense of entitlement and a view of life as procedural in the manner of a banquet, in which certain, well-defined steps follow others to create a cohesive ritual.

The presence of Pales, the Muses, and the lyre in the poem calls forth imagery of classical antiquity, which likely reflects the good education and socioeconomic comfort that the poet and the young woman enjoyed before being imprisoned. This emphasis on the young woman's grace and eloquence is made explicit in the last stanza, where future "student[s]" are mentioned. It is possible, then, that the poem is meant to be tragic not just in the sense that the title figure's life will be cut short, but also in the sense that she and the speaker have the shared experience of being targeted by revolutionaries for their wealth. The poem may thus be instructive in the sense that it teaches us to seize the day, but also in doing so conveys the lesson that even the best laid plans can be undone and that even the most privileged can fall.

"The Young Captive" is highly original and unique in terms of its narrative voice. Further, the outpouring of emotions described by the speaker-poet in the poem nicely mirrors Chénier's status as a forerunner of Romantic poetry. Still, however, this translation, like so many others by Toru Dutt, bears her distinct marks—an interest in the relationship between natural beauty and humanity, the relationship of the poet to the subject, the experience of loss at a young age, and the looming threat of death.