Lord Byron and The Prisoner of Chillon

Portrait of Lord Byron by Richard Westall
Chateaux de Chillon












Chillon15Chillon12Happy New Year to my fellow Austen Authors and Janeites! 2015 was a massive year for my family with our move to Switzerland, and I can’t wait for all the travel and new sights 2016 is sure to bring.

The weekend before Christmas my husband, my four year-old daughter, and I had our first adventure into the french speaking part of the country. Montreaux on Lake Geneva has a huge christmas celebration complete with a market, Santa’s workshop, and medieval fun and games at the Chateaux de Chillon, a strategic holding of the Counts of Savoy dating to the 12th century. The castle is gorgeous, and we enjoyed the performances, crafts, and food provided, but the highlight of the experience was found in the unlikely locale of the dungeon.

I have never been a huge fan of Lord Byron’s poetry. He is not my Romantic poet of choice. However, lack of interest in his writing had never hindered my fascination with him as a popular personality from
the Regency. After all, he was with Mary Shelly when she conceived Frankenstein, he did have a public and raucous affair with Lady Caroline Lamb, he has been accused of incest with his sister, and he fathered the the woman who helped invent computer science. It is extremely hard to resist him. So when I spotted his name on a plaque in the dungeon, I had a full on fan girl moment, complete with squeals and swoons. Byron came to Chillon on his travels and became fChillon3ascinated with the castle’s most famous prisoner, François Bonivard. Bonivard was a Genovese patriot who opposed the Savoy attempts to consolidate their power over the region. He was imprisoned twice for his defiance: for two years in 1519 and then again in the dungeon of Chillon in 1530, where he remained until the area was conquered by the Bernese in 1536.

In 1816, Byron penned his 392 line narrative poem loosely based on Bonivard. He is represented as a typical Byronic hero, but the poem is devoid of the sexual current that usually runs through Byron’s works. I had not read it before visiting Chillon, but I was quick to devour it afterwards. The descriptions of the dungeon are chilling and visually acute, while the plight of the prisoner (who remains anonymous), shut out from the world and at the mercy of his keepers, is incredibly touching in its humanity. I apologize if this poem seems a somewhat sad way to ring in the new year, but the prisoner’s continued reverence for the beauty of not just the outside world, but also that within his dungeon, is strangely uplifting. I may have to revisit some of his lordship’s other works. Perhaps he will hold more appeal for me now in my late 30’s than he dis in my early 20’s, when I last groaned my way through Don Juan. A peaceful and happy New Year to all. May we approach 2016 with gratitude for our blessing and a determination to share them with the world.

The dungeon
Where Byron carved his name into the pillar to which he believed François Bonivard was chained











Engraving on the pillars in the dungeon

The Prisoner of Chillon

by George Gordon, Lord Byron

 My hair is grey, but not with years,
          Nor grew it white
          In a single night,
As men’s have grown from sudden fears:
My limbs are bow’d, though not with toil,
       But rusted with a vile repose,
For they have been a dungeon’s spoil,
       And mine
has been the fate of those
To whom the goodly earth and air
Are bann’d, and barr’d—forbidden fare;

But this was for my father’s faith

I suffer’d chains and courted death;
That father perish’d at the stake
For tenets he would not forsake;
And for the same his lineal race
In darkness found a dwelling place;
We were seven—who now are one,
       Six in youth, and one in age,
Finish’d as they had begun,
       Proud of Persecution’s rage;
One in fire, and two in field,
Their belief with blood have seal’d,
Dying as their father died,
For the God their foes denied;—
Three were in a dungeon cast,
Of whom this wreck is left the last.
   There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprison’d ray,
A sunbeam which hath lost its way,
And through the crevice and the cleft
Of the thick wall is fallen and left;
Creeping o’er the floor so damp,
Like a marsh’s meteor lamp:
And in each pillar there is a ring,
       And in each ring there is a chain;
That iron is a cankering thing,
       For in these limbs its teeth remain,
With marks that will not wear away,
Till I have done with this new day,
Which now is painful to these eyes,
Which have not seen the sun so rise
For years—I cannot count them o’er,
I lost their long and heavy score
When my last brother droop’d and died,
And I lay living by his side.
   They chain’d us each to a column stone,
And we were three—yet, each alone;
We could not move a single pace,
We could not see each other’s face,
But with that pale and livid light
That made us strangers in our sight:
And thus together—yet apart,
Fetter’d in hand, but join’d in heart,
‘Twas still some solace in the dearth
Of the pure elements of earth,
To hearken to each other’s speech,
And each turn comforter to each
With some new hope, or legend old,
Or song heroically bold;
But even these at length grew cold.
Our voices took a dreary tone,
An echo of the dungeon stone,
            A grating sound, not full and free,
            As they of yore were wont to be:
            It might be fancy—but to me
They never sounded like our own.
   I was the eldest of the three
       And to uphold and cheer the rest
       I ought to do—and did my best—
And each did well in his degree.
       The youngest, whom my father loved,
Because our mother’s brow was given
To him, with eyes as blue as heaven—
       For him my soul was sorely moved:
And truly might it be distress’d
To see such bird in such a nest;
For he was beautiful as day—
       (When day was beautiful to me
       As to young eagles, being free)—
       A polar day, which will not see
A sunset till its summer’s gone,
       Its sleepless summer of long light,
The snow-clad offspring of the sun:
       And thus he was as pure and bright,
And in his natural spirit gay,
With tears for nought but others’ ills,
And then they flow’d like mountain rills,
Unless he could assuage the woe
Which he abhorr’d to view below.
   The other was as pure of mind,
But form’d to combat with his kind;
Strong in his frame, and of a mood
Which ‘gainst the world in war had stood,
And perish’d in the foremost rank
       With joy:—but not in chains to pine:
His spirit wither’d with their clank,
       I saw it silently decline—
       And so perchance in sooth did mine:
But yet I forced it on to cheer
Those relics of a home so dear.
He was a hunter of the hills,
       Had followed there the deer and wolf;
       To him this dungeon was a gulf,
And fetter’d feet the worst of ills.
          Lake Leman lies by Chillon’s walls:
A thousand feet in depth below
Its massy waters meet and flow;
Thus much the fathom-line was sent
From Chillon’s snow-white battlement,
       Which round about the wave inthralls:
A double dungeon wall and wave
Have made—and like a living grave
Below the surface of the lake
The dark vault lies wherein we lay:
We heard it ripple night and day;
       Sounding o’er our heads it knock’d;
And I have felt the winter’s spray
Wash through the bars when winds were high
And wanton in the happy sky;
       And then the very rock hath rock’d,
       And I have felt it shake, unshock’d,
Because I could have smiled to see
The death that would have set me free.
   I said my nearer brother pined,
I said his mighty heart declined,
He loathed and put away his food;
It was not that ’twas coarse and rude,
For we were used to hunter’s fare,
And for the like had little care:
The milk drawn from the mountain goat
Was changed for water from the moat,
Our bread was such as captives’ tears
Have moisten’d many a thousand years,
Since man first pent his fellow men
Like brutes within an iron den;
But what were these to us or him?
These wasted not his heart or limb;
My brother’s soul was of that mould
Which in a palace had grown cold,
Had his free breathing been denied
The range of the steep mountain’s side;
But why delay the truth?—he died.
I saw, and could not hold his head,
Nor reach his dying hand—nor dead,—
Though hard I strove, but strove in vain,
To rend and gnash my bonds in twain.
He died—and they unlock’d his chain,
And scoop’d for him a shallow grave
Even from the cold earth of our cave.
I begg’d them, as a boon, to lay
His corse in dust whereon the day
Might shine—it was a foolish thought,
But then within my brain it wrought,
That even in death his freeborn breast
In such a dungeon could not rest.
I might have spared my idle prayer—
They coldly laugh’d—and laid him there:
The flat and turfless earth above
The being we so much did love;
His empty chain above it leant,
Such Murder’s fitting monument!
   But he, the favourite and the flower,
Most cherish’d since his natal hour,
His mother’s image in fair face
The infant love of all his race
His martyr’d father’s dearest thought,
My latest care, for whom I sought
To hoard my life, that his might be
Less wretched now, and one day free;
He, too, who yet had held untired
A spirit natural or inspired—
He, too, was struck, and day by day
Was wither’d on the stalk away.
Oh, God! it is a fearful thing
To see the human soul take wing
In any shape, in any mood:
I’ve seen it rushing forth in blood,
I’ve seen it on the breaking ocean
Strive with a swoln convulsive motion,
I’ve seen the sick and ghastly bed
Of Sin delirious with its dread:
But these were horrors—this was woe
Unmix’d with such—but sure and slow:
He faded, and so calm and meek,
So softly worn, so sweetly weak,
So tearless, yet so tender—kind,
And grieved for those he left behind;
With all the while a cheek whose bloom
Was as a mockery of the tomb
Whose tints as gently sunk away
As a departing rainbow’s ray;
An eye of most transparent light,
That almost made the dungeon bright;
And not a word of murmur—not
A groan o’er his untimely lot,—
A little talk of better days,
A little hope my own to raise,
For I was sunk in silence—lost
In this last loss, of all the most;
And then the sighs he would suppress
Of fainting Nature’s feebleness,
More slowly drawn, grew less and less:
I listen’d, but I could not hear;
I call’d, for I was wild with fear;
I knew ’twas hopeless, but my dread
Would not be thus admonishèd;
I call’d, and thought I heard a sound—
I burst my chain with one strong bound,
And rushed to him:—I found him not,
I only stirred in this black spot,
I only lived, I only drew
The accursed breath of dungeon-dew;
The last, the sole, the dearest link
Between me and the eternal brink,
Which bound me to my failing race
Was broken in this fatal place.
One on the earth, and one beneath—
My brothers—both had ceased to breathe:
I took that hand which lay so still,
Alas! my own was full as chill;
I had not strength to stir, or strive,
But felt that I was still alive—
A frantic feeling, when we know
That what we love shall ne’er be so.
            I know not why
            I could not die,
I had no earthly hope—but faith,
And that forbade a selfish death.
   What next befell me then and there
       I know not well—I never knew—
First came the loss of light, and air,
       And then of darkness too:
I had no thought, no feeling—none—
Among the stones I stood a stone,
And was, scarce conscious what I wist,
As shrubless crags within the mist;
For all was blank, and bleak, and grey;
It was not night—it was not day;
It was not even the dungeon-light,
So hateful to my heavy sight,
But vacancy absorbing space,
And fixedness—without a place;
There were no stars, no earth, no time,
No check, no change, no good, no crime
But silence, and a stirless breath
Which neither was of life nor death;
A sea of stagnant idleness,
Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!
A light broke in upon my brain,—
       It was the carol of a bird;
It ceased, and then it came again,
       The sweetest song ear ever heard,
And mine was thankful till my eyes
Ran over with the glad surprise,
And they that moment could not see
I was the mate of misery;
But then by dull degrees came back
My senses to their wonted track;
I saw the dungeon walls and floor
Close slowly round me as before,
I saw the glimmer of the sun
Creeping as it before had done,
But through the crevice where it came
That bird was perch’d, as fond and tame,
       And tamer than upon the tree;
A lovely bird, with azure wings,
And song that said a thousand things,
       And seemed to say them all for me!
I never saw its like before,
I ne’er shall see its likeness more:
It seem’d like me to want a mate,
But was not half so desolate,
And it was come to love me when
None lived to love me so again,
And cheering from my dungeon’s brink,
Had brought me back to feel and think.
I know not if it late were free,
       Or broke its cage to perch on mine,
But knowing well captivity,
       Sweet bird! I could not wish for thine!
Or if it were, in wingèd guise,
A visitant from Paradise;
For—Heaven forgive that thought! the while
Which made me both to weep and smile—
I sometimes deem’d that it might be
My brother’s soul come down to me;
But then at last away it flew,
And then ’twas mortal well I knew,
For he would never thus have flown—
And left me twice so doubly lone,—
Lone as the corse within its shroud,
Lone as a solitary cloud,
       A single cloud on a sunny day,
While all the rest of heaven is clear,
A frown upon the atmosphere,
That hath no business to appear
       When skies are blue, and earth is gay.
   A kind of change came in my fate,
My keepers grew compassionate;
I know not what had made them so,
They were inured to sights of woe,
But so it was:—my broken chain
With links unfasten’d did remain,
And it was liberty to stride
Along my cell from side to side,
And up and down, and then athwart,
And tread it over every part;
And round the pillars one by one,
Returning where my walk begun,
Avoiding only, as I trod,
My brothers’ graves without a sod;
For if I thought with heedless tread
My step profaned their lowly bed,
My breath came gaspingly and thick,
And my crush’d heart felt blind and sick.
I made a footing in the wall,
       It was not therefrom to escape,
For I had buried one and all,
       Who loved me in a human shape;
And the whole earth would henceforth be
A wider prison unto me:
No child, no sire, no kin had I,
No partner in my misery;
I thought of this, and I was glad,
For thought of them had made me mad;
But I was curious to ascend
To my barr’d windows, and to bend
Once more, upon the mountains high,
The quiet of a loving eye.
   I saw them—and they were the same,
They were not changed like me in frame;
I saw their thousand years of snow
On high—their wide long lake below,
And the blue Rhone in fullest flow;
I heard the torrents leap and gush
O’er channell’d rock and broken bush;
I saw the white-wall’d distant town,
And whiter sails go skimming down;
And then there was a little isle,
Which in my very face did smile,
       The only one in view;
A small green isle, it seem’d no more,
Scarce broader than my dungeon floor,
But in it there were three tall trees,
And o’er it blew the mountain breeze,
And by it there were waters flowing,
And on it there were young flowers growing,
       Of gentle breath and hue.
The fish swam by the castle wall,
And they seem’d joyous each and all;
The eagle rode the rising blast,
Methought he never flew so fast
As then to me he seem’d to fly;
And then new tears came in my eye,
And I felt troubled—and would fain
I had not left my recent chain;
And when I did descend again,
The darkness of my dim abode
Fell on me as a heavy load;
It was as is a new-dug grave,
Closing o’er one we sought to save,—
And yet my glance, too much opprest,
Had almost need of such a rest.
   It might be months, or years, or days—
       I kept no count, I took no note—
I had no hope my eyes to raise,
       And clear them of their dreary mote;
At last men came to set me free;
       I ask’d not why, and reck’d not where;
It was at length the same to me,
Fetter’d or fetterless to be,
       I learn’d to love despair.
And thus when they appear’d at last,
And all my bonds aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage—and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home:
With spiders I had friendship made
And watch’d them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,
Had power to kill—yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn’d to dwell;
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:—even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.

14 Responses to Lord Byron and The Prisoner of Chillon

  1. Alexa, Thank you. What a treat. I adore Byron. I memorized “When We Two Parted” as a teen and keep it near my heart. The photos and your post are a delight.
    It sounds as if you are living a fairytale. Enjoy! And thank you once again.

  2. Hi Alexa, What an interesting post and I loved this poem. The way Bryon writes makes you feel as if you are right there. The pictures were awesome. Say how did you do with the French? I can hardly wait until you put some of your new adventures into writing. Happy New Year! Jen Red

    • Hi Jen! Happy New Year! I had more French coming to Switzerland than German, so it was actually a treat being in the Geneva region, where I was able to be the primary communicator for the family (usually the hubby). I can’t wait for Eliza to go to Kindergarten so I can focus on writing again. To 2016!

  3. The “speaker” in the poem is brave in facing prison for his political beliefs. He also is admirable in the model he sets for his two younger brothers. Although long rambling sentences make sense based on the speaker’s state of mind, the fact that he is slow coming to the point always drove me nuts when I taught Byron to high school students who have a tendency to ramble on. Notice that lines 1-26 are all one sentence.
    Byron was writing during a time when lots of countries were fighting for freedom from oppressive regimes. Many historians refer to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century as the “Age of Revolutions.” But some poets and other thinkers of the period thought that political tyranny was just one form of captivity that people should fight against – William Blake famously referred to the “mind-forged manacles,” or mental handcuffs, that society makes for us.

    • Regina, you are so smart. I don’t think I’ve studied more than a few poems by Lord Byron in my entire life. Ever since reading “Persuasion”, however, and trying to figure out the scene with Captain Benwick, I’ve been a little more interested in reading Byron. This poem certainly sounds like something Captain Benwick would like–long and somber and dealing with death. Thanks for sharing your pictures of the castle.

    • Thanks for the context, Regina! I can’t imagine trying to teach poetry to teenagers, let alone Byron. Blake was way more engaging to me at the age. It strikes me that now is an appropriate time to revisit the romantics, as we are living in a time of similar upheavals. Wishing you a wonderful 2016!

      • I taught Advanced Placement English Language and Composition, not the Literature AP course. My students needed to learn something of the syntax, meter, etc., as well as a bit of history to recognize when a piece was written. It was a difficult course for juniors in high school.

    • I hadn’t realized the first 26 lines were all one sentence. Oh, my what a run on. Thank you so much for the information, Regina. Thank you for the comment about Persuasion, Rebecca. You’ve got me hinking and yes, I agree, Captain Benwick would’ve been interested in reading Byron.

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