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Captive | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of Captive by Francis Carey Slater

Captive by Francis Carey Slater is a three-stanza poem of 32 lines- the first and last stanza contain 10 lines, while the middle stanza contains 12. The poem is written in free-verse, in the first-person narrative, centering around the narrator’s memories of his hometown, while he is kept isolated in a faraway place due to illness.

The themes of Captive are community, hometown, longing and melancholy. There is also an underlying tone of anxiousness due to the poet’s situation. The title comes from the poet’s feelings- as he thinks of his vast, open home, he cannot help but feel trapped. He feels as though he is held captive away from them by his fever.

Captive | Summary

The poet begins by likening himself to a bird which is caught in a snare, or the plated hairs of a brown cow- he is almost invisible. Burdened by the pain of fever, he lies, burning and shivering while listening to the sound of the flies beating against the cold, hard window panes. He wishes to escape, flying freely like the flies back to his home in the faraway valley- his home, which shines brightly in the distance.

He thinks of his home, where the cows he loves are grazing in a quiet, sun-kissed field. Their shadows will cover the grasses. There, the women and girls each have their tasks, and their hoes swing around, glittering like sunshine on water as they do their work. There, the herd boys are shouting happily as they watch their cows graze, and are spending time by using yellow clay to mould small cattle shapes.

And at the poet’s home, when the sun sets and the night falls, everyone in the community comes together around the sparkling fire. They chew the cud that they gathered that day and the older members will tell stories of their younger days- cattle races, ancient battles, hunters who fought lions and dwelled in the territory of leopards. But in the end, the poet is not with them- he remains far away, burning and shivering with a fever as he listens to the sound of the flies beating against the window pane.


Captive | Poem Analysis

Slater employs metaphors, comparisons, imagery and descriptive narration to create a vivid image of the hometown. The casual tone establishes a connection between the poet and the reader- it feels as though the narrator is telling us a story and sharing his pain. The humble recollection of the people in his hometown and the actions of their community highlights their bond and closeness.

Captive | Analysis, Lines 1-4


“As a wild bird caught in a slip-knot snare-

The plaited tail-hairs of a dun-coloured cow,

Almost invisible-

So, tethered in the toils of fever, do I lie”

In the first four lines of the first stanza, the narrator describes himself and his situation using comparisons. In order to explain his sedentary state, he likens himself to a wild bird caught in a snare. It is important to note the words “wild birds” and “caught” because this implies that he is originally of free-spirited nature. Hence, lying down and being unable to move are completely against his will. This creates the feeling of being “trapped”- it establishes that the narrator is very unhappy with his current position. He then compares himself to the “plaited tail-hairs of a dun-coloured cow” to emphasise how “invisible” he is. This would signify loneliness- he is kept in isolation because of his fever, far away from his hometown, and feels as though nobody can see him and there is nobody there for him. The word “tethered” means to tie down an animal or person with a rope- the poet feels as though he is chained to his bed by his fever, as it renders him too fatigued to be able to move. All he can do is lie there.

Captive | Analysis, Lines 5-10

“And burn and shiver while I listen to the buzzing

Of flies that flutter vainly

Against cold, hard, deceiving window-panes:

Like them would I escape, and escaping hasten

To my home that shines in a valley afar,

My home – brightest tooth in the jaws of distance.”


The narrator describes the symptoms of his fever. The description of physical feeling is a sensory imagery which helps the reader better understand the narrator’s plight. The flies are buzzing with their characteristic sound and trying to enter the room. However, they are unable to because they keep bumping into the window panes. This represents two things- one is the feeling of helplessness. The flies try to enter the room, but the “cold, hard, deceiving window-panes” stop them. The flies are like the narrator, wishing to escape, and the window panes are like the fever, firm and unforgiving.

It also represents just how alone the narrator is. The fact that he is surrounded by nothing but flies and that is the only sound he can hear creates an almost haunting aura of loneliness. It is after this that the narrator’s home is introduced for the first time- he wishes to return to his home in the valley. He uses a metaphor, calling it “brightest tooth in the jaws of distance.” Here distance is like a trap- something the narrator is caught in the jaws of, which stops him from returning home. But within that jaw, his house shines brightly. These lines immediately establish the love and attachment the narrator has for his home.

Captive | Analysis, Lines 11-14

“There, now, the cows I love are feeding

In some quiet sun-washed vale;

Their lazy shadows drink the sunlight

Rippling on the grasses;”

The following lines are melancholic memories of the narrator’s home. He thinks about what they may be doing now while he lies there alone. The cows he loves- which may suggest that his profession is herding and cow-rearing- usually feed in the “vale“, meaning valley, which is often covered by the sun’s rays. That sunlight is swallowed by the cows’ shadows, which take up much space, rippling across the grass. The poet uses imagery in this description. It creates a serene feeling, making the readers feel like they are at the field, as well.

Captive | Analysis, Lines 15-18

“There, through the long day, girls and women

Among the mealies chant and hoe,

Their swinging hoes are like the glitter

Of sunshine on water;”

The narrator moves on from the cows to the people, starting with the girls and women. “Mealies” are maze plants; hence we understand that the women are in charge of chopping the maize. They sing and chant during the process. The poet uses imagery to describe the women’s hoes- “Their swinging hoes are like the glitter Of sunshine on water.”

The mention that the women sing joyfully while working hints at the optimism and happiness of the narrator’s home.

Captive | Analysis, Lines 19-22

“There, now, shouting, happy herd boys,

While they watch the cattle browse,

Are busy moulding mimic cattle

From clay moist and yellow.”


While the women work with hoes, the men are herd boys who watch the cattle graze. Once again- similar to the women chanting and singing- the boys are “shouting, happy” which suggests the positive environment. They use mud to mould little cattle figures. This suggests a playful and creative nature. Also, on seeing that the men of the hometown are herd boys, we may assume that this is the narrator’s role as well, as we had guessed earlier.

Captive | Analysis, Lines 23-26

“There, when the sun has folded his wings that dazzle,

And has sunken to his hidden nest beyond the hills,

All shall group together gaily, around the crackling fires,

And chew the juicy cud of gathered day;”


We also see a confirmation of the town’s joyful nature and close bond from their dynamics as a community. The poet also uses personification to describe the sunset- by saying “There, when the sun has folded his wings that dazzle, And has sunken to his hidden nest beyond the hills.” he is comparing the sun to a bird which stops flying and heads back to its nest at the end of the day. Everyone in the community gathers to eat together. The fact that the community gives so much importance to their familial element is a huge reason the poet feels so lonely- his current situation is the complete opposite of what he is used to. This change of environment and sense of uncertainty are what cause his anxiety.

Captive | Analysis, Lines 27-30

“And greybeards shall tell stories of ancient battles,

And cattle-races of the days of old,

Of hunters, bold and fearless, who faced the lion’s thunder

And stalked the lightning leopard to his lair.”

The “greybeards” refers to the old folk of the community. During dinnertime, they tell stories about all the things they have experienced, seen and heard in their lives. Thus includes ancient battles, cattle races, and stories of brave and courageous hunters who faced lions and leopards. Here we see an interesting use of both “thunder” and lightning ” to describe the lion and leopard respectively. Thunder symbolises the lion’s power while lightning symbolises the leopard’s speed. Notice the use of alliteration used to emphasize the stealth and speed of the beast : lightning leopard to his lair.

Captive | Analysis, Lines 31-32

“– But here I burn and shiver and listen to the buzzing

Of flies against deceiving window-panes.”

After the warm, welcoming memories of the narrator’s town, he pulls us back to reality. The suddenness of the transition emphasises his nervousness and unhappiness about the situation. Despite all the things that must be going on at his home, he is not able to take part in them. He is forced to remain away and alone, burning and shivering due to the fever, in complete silence, except from the sound of the flies. Like the flies, the narrator wishes to escape






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