'Prisoner of Chillon, The' by George Gordon, Lord Byron

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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 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 drooped 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,
So song heroically bold;
But even these at length grew cold.
Our voices took on a dreary tone,
And 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 a bird in such a nest;
For he was as 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 other's 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 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 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 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 stove 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 favorite 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 those 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 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 earth, and one beneath -
My brothers - both had ceased to breathe:
I took that hand that lay so still,
Alas! my own was full as chill;
I had not the 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, scare conscious what I wist,
As shrubless crags within the mist;
For all was blank, and bleak, and grey;
It was not night - it was 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 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 to 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 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 to 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 fell blind and sick.

I made a footing in the wall,
I was not there from 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
Oh 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 bond 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.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Poetry of Imprisonment: Lord Byron's "The Prisoner of Chillon"

In the world of literature, few themes are as timeless and universal as imprisonment. Whether physical or metaphorical, the idea of being trapped, confined, and restricted is one that resonates deeply with readers across cultures and generations. And when it comes to poetic explorations of imprisonment, few works are as powerful and enduring as Lord Byron's haunting masterpiece, "The Prisoner of Chillon."

Written in 1816, "The Prisoner of Chillon" tells the story of a man who has been held captive in a dungeon beneath a castle for six years. The poem is based on the real-life experiences of François Bonivard, a sixteenth-century monk who was imprisoned in the Castle of Chillon on Lake Geneva for his political beliefs. But while the poem draws on historical events, its true power lies in the way it uses Bonivard's story to explore universal themes of freedom, suffering, and the struggle for survival in the face of overwhelming adversity.

At its core, "The Prisoner of Chillon" is a deeply personal and introspective work. The narrator, who is never named but is widely understood to be a fictionalized version of Bonivard himself, reflects on his experiences of captivity and the toll they have taken on his mind and spirit. "My hair is grey, but not with years, / Nor grew it white / In a single night, / As men's have grown from sudden fears," he laments in the opening stanza, setting the tone for the poem's melancholy and introspective mood.

One of the most striking things about the poem is the way it uses language to convey the narrator's sense of isolation and despair. The dungeon in which he is held is described as "a nest of horrid men," and the walls are said to be "black, and damp, and utterly bare." The narrator's sense of confinement and powerlessness is further emphasized by the repetition of the word "chain," which appears throughout the poem to describe the literal chains that bind him as well as the metaphorical chains of circumstance that have led him to this bleak and hopeless place.

But while "The Prisoner of Chillon" is undoubtedly a deeply sad and somber work, it is also a testament to the human spirit's ability to endure and even triumph over adversity. Throughout the poem, the narrator reflects on his past, his present, and his uncertain future, finding moments of solace and hope even in the darkest of circumstances. "I thought of Chillon's dungeons deep, / I thought of what I was, and what I am," he says at one point, acknowledging the crushing weight of his situation but also recognizing the resilience and strength he has shown in surviving it.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the poem is the way it plays with the idea of time. The narrator's imprisonment has lasted for six long years, but the poem compresses this time frame and presents it as a single, unbroken moment, a sort of eternal present in which the narrator is trapped. This creates a sense of timelessness and universality that makes the poem feel almost mythic in its scope and significance. At the same time, however, the poem is filled with references to specific historical and cultural events, such as the French Revolution and the Reformation, that ground it in a particular time and place. This tension between the timeless and the specific is one of the things that makes "The Prisoner of Chillon" such a rich and complex work of literature.

Another key element of the poem is its use of religious imagery and symbolism. The narrator describes himself as a "martyr" and a "victim," invoking the language of Christian martyrdom to underscore the suffering he has endured for his beliefs. The dungeon itself is described as a kind of hellish underworld, complete with "damp vault" and "gloomy light." And yet, even in this darkest of places, the narrator finds moments of spiritual transcendence, as when he sees a beam of light shining through a crevice in the wall and imagines it as a symbol of divine grace.

Ultimately, what makes "The Prisoner of Chillon" such a remarkable work of poetry is the way it manages to be both intensely personal and deeply universal at the same time. By drawing on historical events and religious symbolism, Byron creates a work that speaks to the human condition in all its complexity and nuance. And by using language that is at once bleak and beautiful, he captures the paradoxical nature of imprisonment itself – the way it can both crush the spirit and inspire it to new heights of resilience and courage.

In conclusion, "The Prisoner of Chillon" is a work of poetry that continues to resonate with readers today, more than two hundred years after it was first written. Its exploration of the themes of imprisonment, suffering, and survival is as relevant now as it was in Byron's time, and its language and imagery remain powerful and haunting. Whether read as a historical document, a meditation on the human condition, or simply a work of art, "The Prisoner of Chillon" is a masterpiece that will continue to captivate and inspire readers for generations to come.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

The Poetry Prisoner of Chillon, written by George Gordon, Lord Byron, is a classic poem that has stood the test of time. It is a powerful and emotional piece that tells the story of a man who is imprisoned in the Chillon Castle in Switzerland. The poem is a masterpiece of Romantic literature, and it is a perfect example of the themes and ideas that were prevalent during the Romantic era.

The poem is set in the Chillon Castle, which is located on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The castle was built in the 12th century and was used as a prison during the 16th and 17th centuries. The protagonist of the poem is a man who has been imprisoned in the castle for six years. He is the last surviving member of his family, and he is haunted by the memories of his loved ones who have died.

The poem is divided into six stanzas, each of which tells a different part of the story. The first stanza sets the scene and introduces the protagonist. The second stanza describes the cell in which he is imprisoned, and the third stanza describes his daily routine. The fourth stanza is the most emotional and powerful part of the poem. It describes the protagonist's memories of his family and his feelings of despair and hopelessness. The fifth stanza describes the protagonist's thoughts about death and his desire for freedom. The final stanza is a reflection on the protagonist's life and his eventual release from prison.

The poem is written in a very emotional and passionate style. Byron uses vivid imagery and powerful language to convey the protagonist's feelings of despair and hopelessness. For example, in the fourth stanza, Byron writes:

"My very chains and I grew friends, So much a long communion tends To make us what we are:—even I Regained my freedom with a sigh."

This passage is a perfect example of Byron's use of language to convey the protagonist's emotions. The use of the word "communion" suggests a deep connection between the protagonist and his chains, and the phrase "even I" suggests that the protagonist is surprised by his own feelings.

The poem is also a perfect example of the themes and ideas that were prevalent during the Romantic era. The Romantic era was a time of great change and upheaval, and many writers and artists were exploring new ideas and themes. One of the main themes of the Romantic era was the idea of individualism. This idea is reflected in the Poetry Prisoner of Chillon, as the protagonist is a lone figure who is struggling to maintain his identity in the face of overwhelming adversity.

Another important theme of the Romantic era was the idea of nature. Many Romantic writers and artists were fascinated by the natural world, and they often used nature as a metaphor for human emotions and experiences. This theme is also present in the Poetry Prisoner of Chillon, as the protagonist is surrounded by the natural beauty of Lake Geneva, but he is unable to appreciate it because of his imprisonment.

In conclusion, the Poetry Prisoner of Chillon is a classic poem that has stood the test of time. It is a powerful and emotional piece that tells the story of a man who is imprisoned in the Chillon Castle in Switzerland. The poem is a masterpiece of Romantic literature, and it is a perfect example of the themes and ideas that were prevalent during the Romantic era. Byron's use of vivid imagery and powerful language makes the poem a truly unforgettable experience, and it is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the literature of the Romantic era.

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