James and Mary Ford, eds. Every Day in the Year. 1902.

May 26

The Prisoner of Chillon

By Lord Byron (1788–1824)

  • Francois de Bonnivard was a distinguished Genevan prelate and politician. He was a conspicuous opponent of Charles Duke of Savoy, who endeavored to obtain control of Geneva. Bonnivard was arrested by him on May 26, 1530, and confined in the Castle of 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 consigned—

    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 ’t was 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.

    My hair is gray, but not with years,

    Nor grew it white

    In a single night,

    As men’s have grown from sudden fears;

    My limbs are bowed, 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 banned and barred—forbidden fare.

    But this was for my father’s faith

    I suffered chains and courted death.

    That father perished 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,

    Finished as they had begun,

    Proud of persecutions rage;

    One in fire, and two in field,

    Their belief with blood have sealed—

    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 gray,

    Dim with a dull imprisoned 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 drooped and died,

    And I lay living by his side.

    They chained 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—

    Fettered in hand, but joined in heart;

    ’T was 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 distrest

    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 naught but other’s ills;

    And then they flowed like mountain rills,

    Unless he could assuage the wo

    Which he abhorred to view below.

    The other was as pure of mind,

    But formed to combat with his kind;

    Strong in his frame, and of a mood

    Which ’gainst the world in war had stood,

    And perished in the foremost rank

    With joy; but not in chains to pine.

    His spirit withered 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 fettered 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 spent

    From Chillon’s snow-white battlement,

    Which round about the wave enthrals;

    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 knocked.

    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 rocked,

    And I have felt it shake, unshocked;

    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 ’t was 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 moistened 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 brothers 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 unlocked his chain,

    And scooped for him a shallow grave

    Even from the cold earth of our cave.

    I begged 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 laughed, 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 favorite and the flower,

    Most cherished since his natal hour,

    His mother’s image in fair face,

    The infant love of all his race,

    His martyred 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 withered on the stalk away.

    O 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 swollen, convulsive motion;

    I’ve seen the sick and ghastly bed

    Of sin, delirious with its dread;

    But these were horrors—this was wo

    Unmixed 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 listened, but I could not hear—

    I called, for I was wild with fear;

    I knew ’t was hopeless, but my dread

    Would not be thus admonished;

    I called, 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.