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Chateau de Chillon, Lake Geneva, Switzerland
The Prisoner of Chillon
George Gordon, Lord Byron

Edited for the Web by Bob Blair

[The 'Prisoner' in this poem is François Bonivard, 16th century Swiss (Genevese) patriot and Prior of St. Victor, imprisoned for six years in the dungeons of Chillon Castle on Lake Geneva; François was the lone survivor of his family, including two of his brothers who died during their imprisonment at Chillon; Byron wrote the sonnet after exploring the castle with Shelley, then wrote the longer treatment soon afterward. Byron wrote an extensive introductory note - almost entirely in French; I am in search of an English translation --Steve]

Sonnet on Chillon
ETERNAL Spirit of the chainless Mind!
     Brightest in dungeons, Liberty! thou art,
     For there thy habitation is the heart --
The heart which love of thee alone can bind;
And when thy sons to fetters are consign'd --
     To fetters, and the damp vault's dayless gloom,
     Their country conquers with their martyrdom,
And Freedom's fame finds wings on every wind.
Chillon! thy prison is a holy place,
     And thy sad floor an altar -- for 'twas trod,
Until his very steps have left a trace
     Worn, as if thy cold pavement were a sod,
By Bonnivard! May none those marks efface!
     For they appeal from tyranny to God.

 . The Prisoner of Chillon


    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
    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 follow'd there the deer and wolf;
    To him his 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 inthrals:
    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!

    Chillon Chapel


    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 admonished;
    I call'd and thought I heard a sound --
    I burst my chain with one strong bound,
    And rush'd to him: -- I found him not,
    I only stirr'd in this black spot.
    I only lived, I only drew
    The accrused 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;
    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 thinkful 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 seem'd 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 winged 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 the 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, nor 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 moutnains 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.

    George Gordon, Lord Byron

[Image notes - the marquee image is cropped, desaturated and color shifted from "The Sun Sets on Château de Chillon" - a high dynamic range photo by Eric Hill; the chapel interior is from the Château de Chillon official website, with the same HSV treatment. --Steve]

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